FCC Reaffirms Nearly $3 Million Fine for Marketing Unauthorized Drone Transmitters
In a Memorandum Opinion and Order (MO&O) released June 17, the FCC denied a Petition for Reconsideration filed by HobbyKing of a $2,861,128 fine for marketing noncompliant RF equipment and for failing to respond to FCC orders in its investigation of the company’s practices. In the same step, the FCC enforced its equipment marketing rules. The fine resulted from an FCC investigation initiated by ARRL’s January 2017 complaint that the HobbyKing equipment was “blatantly illegal at multiple levels.”
“The Forfeiture Order is the final chapter of a story that started with a report to the ARRL Board by the EMC Committee in 2017, as a result of the discovery that aerial drone TV transmitting equipment was being imported and marketed without proper FCC authorization under FCC Part 15 rules,” said ARRL Electromagnetic Compatibility Committee Chair Kermit Carlson, W9XA.
As spelled out in ARRL’s 2017 complaint, the ARRL Laboratory had documented that the operating frequencies of these drone TV transmitters near the 1.3 GHz amateur band were dip-switch selectable for frequencies internationally assigned for use by Aeronautical Navigation, GPS, GLONASS L1, ATC Mode “S,” as well as to both the interrogation and reply frequencies used for Air Traffic Control Air-Route Surveillance “transponder” radar systems. “Transmissions from these drone TV transmitters would have caused harmful interference to these essential Navigation and ATC Radar systems, presenting a real and dangerous threat to the safety of flight,” Carlson said.
ARRL’s complaint noted that given the channel configuration, these units would not have a legitimate amateur radio use, and that the marketing was directed at drone enthusiasts and not to licensed radio amateurs. “ARRL Laboratory tests did prove that only one of the seven available channels was within the 1.3 GHz amateur band,” Carlson said.
“This is another example of ARRL not only affirmatively acting to protect our Members’ interests, but also acting to protect the safety and security of vital services and the general public,” Carlson said. HobbyKing had denied that it was marketing its drone transmitters to US customers, but as the ARRL January 2017 complaint pointed out, ARRL Laboratory Manager Ed Hare, W1RFI, was able to purchase two drone transmitters from HobbyKing and have them shipped to a US address for testing in the Lab.
Hare and ARRL Lab staffers Mike Gruber, W1MG, and Bob Allison, WB1GCM, tested the units. Carlson, as well as the Electromagnetic Compatibility Committee he chairs, were credited in the complaint for calling attention to the issue and prompting ARRL’s action.
“The FCC noted that Amateur Radio equipment used to telecommand model craft are limited to 1 W (1,000 mW), but three transmitters included in the FCC investigation operated at significantly higher power levels of 1,500 mW and 2,000 mW,” ARRL said.
HobbyKing had told the FCC that it had no notice of the Commission’s authorization requirements; that the Fifth Amendment relieved HobbyKing of its duty to respond; that the forfeiture amount was inappropriate because its parent company, Indubitably, Inc., lacked the ability to pay to the Forfeiture Order; and that the Commission was time-barred from taking action against ABC Fulfillment Services LLC because it was not part of HobbyKing’s business.
“Upon review of HobbyKing’s Petition for Reconsideration and the entire record, we find no basis for reconsideration because the petition fails to present new information warranting reconsideration,” the FCC said in the MO&O. “Rather, HobbyKing again raises the very same arguments already considered and rejected in the Forfeiture Order.”
The fine reaffirms the monetary penalty sought in a June 2018 FCC Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL). The FCC said it found that dozens of devices marketed by the company transmitted in unauthorized radio frequency bands and, in some cases, operated at excessive power levels.
HobbyKing is the trade name of two US-based companies that include ABC Fulfillment Services LLC and Indubitably, Inc. HobbyKing has a New York
office and customer service operations in the US, the FCC noted. In its earlier Forfeiture Order, the FCC said it had made clear that “devices used in the Amateur Radio Service do not require authorization prior to being imported into the United States, but “if such equipment can operate in amateur and non-amateur frequencies, it must be certified prior to marketing and operation.” The FCC investigation found that 65 models of devices marketed by HobbyKing did not have the required FCC certification.
Responding to the FCC, HobbyKing claimed to have ceased marketing the 65 models the FCC identified, but promised only to make “best efforts” not to market other noncompliant RF devices.
“HobbyKing has a continuing obligation to market only radio frequency equipment that is properly authorized,” the FCC said. “We therefore remind HobbyKing that continuing to market noncompliant radio frequency devices could result in further significant forfeitures.”