It almost always starts the same way: A novice enters the FPV community, and asks a well meaning question: Why does this gear say I need a Ham radio license to operate it in the United States?
This touches off a mild to severe argument, with both sides citing laws and precedent. But, what’s the real answer?
Disclaimer before I go forward: I am not a lawyer, nor providing legal advice. What I am is mildly obsessive and lawful neutral, so I’ve done my best to research this out. This is the fruits of this research. If you have any contrary information that you can cite, please contact me.
FPV Gear and Part 15
Where things often get muddles is that radio is covered under a LOT of rules and laws in America. Many people point to FCC Title 47 Part 15 (specifically 15 Part C, 15.249), or cite that they have 5.8 GHz wireless equipment that doesn’t require FCC regulation. The problem is while Part 15 does allow for some devices, they are subject to authorization under Title 14, Part 2 Subpart J. These devices have to go through a process that proves they can be operated safely, allowing unlicensed users access to them. The certification process is designed to prevent unintended signal conflicts from a registered device by users who may not have the full background or training to help ensure a lack of interference with other devices. So while Part 15 is restrictive, it is for safety and to ensure fair usage of the radio waves.
FPV for Amateurs
Title 47 does allow for non-certified hardware to be used in the spaces governed by Part 15. You see, Part 15 isn’t the only part that coveres the entirety of the radio spectrum. That is what Title 47 itself does. Commercial operators, for example, can apply for a station license and broadcast on specific frequencies. But more useful to the FPV hobbyist like you or I, then more useful to you would be Part 97.
Part 97 covers the Amateur Radio Service, also known as Hams. When you become a Ham you are given a license, and that license allows you to operate analog equipment in the spaces governed by Part 97, which happens to include our FPV gear. In this case, it’s not the gear that is licensed, but the operator of that gear.
How to Get a Ham
It’s actually fairly simple to achieve the Technician license, which is all we need. The technician license mostly covers basic electronics, basic radio theory, procedures & etiquette on radio frequencies, and government policy. As I was studying for my Ham, I found that it was helpful for me to understand or improve my understanding on some of the things I was looking at for FPV.
The traditional way is to find some sort of course, or buy the current ARRL Technician study guide. What I did though was I spent a lot of time on HamStudy.org, where I would mostly go through the flash cards until I was well above 90%, then I would do two or three practice tests per day until I was the same. Every time I missed a question, I read the information they provided on it, and did my best to try and study other materials.
You will be glad to know: there is no Morse code requirement.
Here’s the open secret about the exam: All the questions and answers are public knowledge. When you take the exam, you’ll get 35 random questions from the pool. That’s it.
When you’re ready, you then need to find some Hams that are giving the test. The first best stop is the ARRL, although not everyone lists their testing sessions there. What I ultimately ended up doing was “Ham Radio Test in (enter city here)” in Google, ultimately finding a few in different cities around my area.
Once you’re there, you simply need to pay a small fee (less than $20) and you’ll be good to take the exam. You will have a few other requirements to handle ahead of time, but the ARRL has a helpful guide.
But Do I Really Need A License?
The answer I always give here is that it is like driving a car: A license tries to ensure that you are capable of handling what you are about to do, and no one checks until there’s a problem. If you have it, the consequences are less than if you don’t.
You also can buy FPV gear that meets Part 15 requirements and use it without a license. The Team Blacksheep FPV equipment comes much more limited in power and channels, but is FCC certified as is. If you want to use it above 25 mw or have access to other channels such as the entirety of Raceband, then you need a Ham.
Want an Extra Opinion?
The question came up on Facebook again recently, and Steven Petrotto – as of that time, the Brand Manager for Blade at Horizon Hobby, weighed in on this as well and said:
What’s the Harm of Not Having a Ham?
Keep in mind, the space that we use isn’t just used by FPV. In addition to FPV, the 5 cm band where we are commonly in for FPV is also used for Amateur radio satellite, wireless ISPs, and equipment such as 5.8 GHz wireless access points. Having a Ham gives you a bit of knowledge on how to prevent interfering with these systems, as well as ensure your own kit doesn’t get bothered. The airwaves are there for everyone, and by ensuring we’re not breaking things it will help keep them open for free use.
Get a Ham Already!
So while there is a regulatory burden on us to use FPV equipment, it is there for a descent reason. The requirements to get the license aren’t that hard, and at the very least it’s mostly a “cya” than anything else.