Advice for Churches: Drive-In services
Despite the "stay at home" orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some states, including here in Maryland are permitting churches to conduct church services where congregants remain in their vehicles. As a result, REC as well as other consultants, engineers, etc. have been receiving inquiries about the ability for services to be heard on congregant's car radios and in some cases, in the neighborhood. Absent any subsequent rulings or guidance from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), REC offers the following advice.
In the Communications Act of 1934, Congress specifically gave the FCC the authority to regulate the operation of "any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio" (47 USC §301). Further, that authority includes regulating radio transmissions within the same state. Therefore, in order to use radio transmitting equipment, a licenese must be granted. In some cases, a license is automatically given by regulation as long as specific rules are complied with.
Section 301 of the Communications Act nor any federal regulation gives any specific exception to operate unlicensed/unauthorized broadcasting equipment, even in a state of emergency. (See also 47 USC §73.3542) Some may say that the FCC only has jurisdiction over radio signals that cross state lines or that during a state of emergency, you can run any kind of transmitter for any reason. Both of these are pure myths and are not supported in the law or federal regulations.
The existing FCC rules has various accommodations to permit the use of extremely low power short range transmitters without the need to seek a license from the FCC. In order to determine whether a specific transmitting device can be used in compliance with these regulations, the manufacturer of these devices must have the model tested in a certified laboratory and receive a certification number from the FCC. This is no different than other license-free transmitting devices like garage door openers, walkie talkies and cordless telephones for example. The device must have affixed to it and FCC ID number. This ID number (which can be verified at the FCC Equipment Certification Website) will indicate that the device model has been tested and found to be compliant. It is important though that even with a device with an FCC ID, the certification is only valid if the device is used per the instructions and no modifications have been made. Illegal modifications can include attaching a different antenna or making internal modifications to increase the output power of a device.
For FM radio, the technical specifications can be found in 47 CFR §15.239 of the FCC rules. The low power of these devices makes them practical to be used for a range of about 100 feet from the transmitter. Performance can vary based on whether the device is mounted outside (such as on a table in the parking lot) or if inside a building, the location of the device (such as on a second floor) as well as the construction of building (wood vs. steel). In addition, frequency selection is very important. The device should never be set to use a frequency that is being used by a station that can be heard on a car radio. In addition, the "first adjacent" channels of any local stations should also be avoided. First adjacent channels are "0.2" up or down from the channel being avoided. For example, if there is a local station on 94.7 FM, you should avoid using 94.5 or 94.9 FM.
For FM, legal devices are made by companies like C. Crane and Decade among others. It is important to realize that "marketplace" websites such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and eBay may be selling imported transmitters that have not been certified and are illegal for use in the USA. Brands to avoid include FM User, CZE, CZH, Retekess among others. Avoid purchasing any transmitter that claims to be "long range" or "extended range". Avoid purchasing any transmitter that does not have a built in antenna. We will explain why this is important in just a moment.
Another option is AM radio. Virtually all vehicles (perhaps except for Tesla) are still equipped with AM radios. Legal license-free AM transmitters used outside during daytime hours may offer a better range than legal license-free FM devices. Based on the installation, the calibration of the antenna and other factors, a legal AM transmitter has the capability of going several hundred feet. On permanent installations, some have reported reception about a mile away, but that is more of the exception than the norm. Legal AM transmitters are sold by companies like Hamilton, Chez Radio and iAM Radio. REC recommends the Chez Radio Procaster. The FCC rule that permits this type of license-free AM operation is 47 CFR §15.219.
Legal license-free AM transmitters operate at best during the day. At night, radio stations from across North America will bounce their signals off of the ionosphere and will be heard hundreds or even thousands of miles way. The frequency chosen should not have a local station on it. You should also avoid the "first adjacent" channels (10 up or 10 down) of strong AM stations in your area. For example, if you have a strong station on 960 AM, you should avoid using 950 or 970. For AM, the best frequencies to select are those between 1610 and 1700. In this range, there are far fewer local stations during the day and based on the design of the license free AM transmitters and antennas, the transmitters work more efficiently at those higher frequencies.
For churches that also have an accredited school (K-12, college) on the same property as the church, there may be some additional ability to operate a slightly stronger AM transmitter than the license-free certified units. This type of operation requires oversight by a qualified AM broadcast engineer with the appropriate testing equipment (such as a field strength meter). Under this school exemption, the AM transmitter can operate with as much power is necessary as long as it does not produced specific signal strength levels outside the perimeter of the campus. Your engineer can get more information by reviewing FCC rule 47 CFR §15.221(b).
Overall, we feel that using a legal license-free AM transmitter will provide the best overall performance.
Why should I not use an uncertified transmitter?
The first issue is safety. A radio transmitter actually produces multiple versions of the signal on different frequencies. A properly designed radio transmitter will have circuitry to suppress those "spurious" transmissions. For example, on FM, those spurious transmissions can interfere with public safety radio systems (like police and fire) or they can interfere with aeronautical communications (such as between airplanes and air traffic control).
The second issue is legality. The certification process was put into place as an assurance that the device does comply with FCC regulations for license-free use. The model has been tested in a laboratory for safety and technical compliance.
What would happen if I was caught using an illegal transmitter?
The FCC can, at the minimum, send you a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (NOUO). This is mainly a letter that states that the FCC is aware of out of compliance operation. In these cases, the FCC would have had to come out into the area and took readings to determine the strength of the transmitter. Based on how the person running the illegal transmitter reacts to the NOUO, the FCC may refer it for a forfeiture (fine). In January 2020, President Trump signed the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (P.I.R.A.T.E.) Act. The law can call for up to fines of up to $100,000 per day with a $2 million maximum for unlicensed broadcasting. In addition; Florida, New Jersey and New York also have state laws related to unlicensed broadcasting.
Sometime, in the first half of the 2020s, we are expecting a window of opportunity for small organizations and churches to be able to file for a licensed 100-watt FM braodcast station. This is called the Low Power FM (LPFM) radio service. A LPFM station would allow a church or other organization to have a licensed radio station with an effective range of about 3 miles or more. In accordance with Section 632(a)(2) the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2001, if any organization or person involved with that organization engages in unlicensed operation (where they receive at the minimum, an NOUO), that organization or individual would not be able to apply for a LPFM license when the window takes place. For NOUOs made out to individuals, that individual would be ineligible to serve on the board of directors for any LPFM station licensee so likewise, they will not be able to participate in the filing window.
What other options are available?
The best way is to have people stay home and use video streaming like Facebook Live or YouTube to broadcast the service to your congregants with the added bonus of reaching nearly anyone in the world.
I hear a lot about "Zoom". What about using Zoom?
Zoom discourages the use of their services for very large crowds like a 100+ congregation as it puts a load on their network. Sometimes, you may want to have multiple speakers during a service. Anyone who has experience in doing video streaming may be able to set up a live stream from software like OBS Studio. The speakers can meet on a Zoom conference and then the screen of the Zoom conference can be relayed through OBS Studio to a Facebook Live or YouTube stream.
There have been some who have expressed privacy concerns with using Zoom.
Does REC provide any kind of consulting or services related to a drive-in church application?
For unlicensed applications, our education is handled strictly online through the website. We can't provide e-mail or phone support. See our detailed page "Do I Need A License?". For those interested in eventually being a licensed LPFM radio station, REC can help with that as we get closer to when the FCC announces when the filing opportunity will be.
We hope that this information has given you and your church some basic guidance as well all go through the current pandemic situation. For now, please be safe and please do your part to keep others safe. We are all depending on you!
Please note that advice from REC Networks is not reviewed by an attorney and therefore does not consitute legal advice. For legal advice, please contact an attorney that is qualified and experienced in communications law.