Don’t Touch That Dial: FCC Frequencies for the Use of Telemetry in Ornithology

A fact sheet from the Ornithological Council


Under current U.S. regulations, the frequencies assigned to wildlife radio-telemetry use cannot be used to track birds, except by employees of federal agencies. Federal Communications Commission regulations prescribe two frequency bands for non-satellite-based wildlife telemetry by parties who are not federal agencies or employees of federal agencies (“non-government” entities). One of these bands is physically inappropriate for avian use because it requires transmitters that are typically too large for birds; the other of these two bands is apparently illegal for airborne use. Another frequency band, commonly used for wildlife telemetry, is not legally available to non-government entities.

The Ornithological Council is addressing this situation and will inform ornithologists when we arrive at a solution. Meanwhile, several alternatives for lawful non-government avian telemetry are discussed.

Cross-border issues (coordination with Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean) will be discussed in a separate fact sheet to be issued at a later time.


In the United States, authority over the radio spectrum — the range of frequencies suitable for radio communication — is shared by the federal legislative and executive branches. Except in a very few instances, local and state governments are preempted from regulating radio spectrum matters. Local and state governments are considered “non-government” entities for purposes of U.S. radio regulation.

Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to manage the radio spectrum, including licensing stations of non-government entities. Under the Communications Act of 1934, which is enforced by the FCC, no non-government station may operate without FCC license. No radio equipment may be built, imported, or sold without FCC authorization, although for some devices a type of self-authorization is available. This equipment authorization, held by a vendor, is in addition to any operational license that a user must hold.

The FCC Rules authorize an enormous variety of radio products and services. At this time, none are both legal and technically satisfactory for avian telemetry.


Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations contains Part 90 of the FCC rules. This part concerns “Private Land Mobile Radio Services,” which encompass most of the utilitarian uses for radio.

Within Part 90 is FCC rule 90.248, “Wildlife and ocean buoy tracking” [63 FR 64208, Nov. 19, 1998].

Rule 90.248 reads, in pertinent part:

“(a) The frequency bands 40.66-40.70 MHz and 216-220 MHz may be used for the tracking of, and the telemetry of scientific data from, ocean buoys and animal wildlife.”

The frequency bands stated in 90.248(a) constitute the only spectrum explicitly allocated by the FCC for animal tracking and telemetry by nongovernmental entities.

Unless the FCC has authorized a researcher to use other frequencies on an individualized, experimental basis (see below), the researcher’s telemetry must be limited to the 40 MHz or 216 MHz bands.

Telemetry vendors state that the 40 MHz band is not suitable for avian telemetry. This band, in the low VHF spectrum, has a relatively long wavelength. Radio frequency components for this band may be of a physical size that makes them unsuitable for avian use. Because experts state that 40 MHz is inappropriate for avian telemetry, this band will not be discussed further.

With regard to the other wildlife telemetry frequency – 216 – 220 MHz, Rule 90.248 (e) (2)(f) states that, “The maximum peak transmitter output (carrier) power shall not exceed 1 milliwatt for airborne wildlife applications.” As most transmitters used for avian telemetry emit far less than 1 milliwatt, this provision seemingly provides for a suitable frequency for avian telemetry.

However, another rule – 90.259(c)(3) – flatly prohibits airborne use of transmitters in the 216-220 MHz band.

The Ornithological Council has filed a request to the FCC to clarify or correct this contradiction. A response is expected in early 2003 and it is expected that the response will resolve the dilemma by allowing the use of low-power (under 1 milliwatt) transmitters for airborne wildlife telemetry. When the FCC responds to the Ornithological Council’s request, the information will be posted on BIRDNET (, on Ornith-L, OCNET, WORGNET, NEOORN, and PERMIT-L. See BIRDNET for instructions on subscribing to these listservs. A notice will also be published in the Ornithological Newsletter.

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2005: The FCC has granted the request filed by the Ornithological Council. In a Memorandum Opinion and Order issued 7 August 2003, stated that in response to the OC’s request, the agency will revise the regulations [specifically Section 90.259(c)(3)] to clarify that the general prohibition on airborne use does not preclude the wildlife applications permitted by Section 920.248 (f). In other words, the wildlife telemetry frequency – 216 – 220 MHz – may now be used in avian applications.  The Ornithological Council has made transmitter manufacturers aware of this pending regulatory change, which took effect on July 2004. 


Part 15 of the FCC rules governs certain transmitting devices that are exempt from the statutory requirement that all stations be licensed. These devices normally transmit at low power levels.

In this category — which is not a “radio service” — are consumer and office products such as cordless phones, radio-controlled toys, and wireless LANs. They have a wide variety of available frequencies. Though the individual user need not be licensed to use them, Part 15 devices must have FCC authorization before they may be marketed.

Such authorization normally involves submitting the device to independent, specially designated laboratories for testing. The testing centers on the interference potential for the device. The lab certifies its test results to the FCC.

Part 15 devices normally share spectrum allocated to other radio services, but they have no interference rights. They may not cause “harmful interference” (defined as repeated, interruptive interference), and they must accept any interference they receive.

No current avian telemetry devices have Part 15 authorization.  One vendor, finding that its products did not comply with Part 15 rules, is planning to seek a waiver from the FCC in order to legally sell its products with the FCC. Once that vendor – or others – obtain waivers, the Ornithological Council will make that information available to ornithologists.


MURS is a personal radio service available without the need for individual license documents. MURS Rule 95.1307, “Permissible communications,” reads:

(a) MURS stations may transmit voice or data signals as permitted in this subpart.
(b) A MURS station may transmit any emission type listed in paragraph 95.631(j) of this chapter.
(c) MURS frequencies may be used for remote control and telemetering functions. MURS transmitters may not be operated in the continuous carrier transmit mode.
(d) MURS users shall take reasonable precautions to avoid causing harmful interference. This includes monitoring the transmitting frequency for communications in progress and such other measures as may be necessary to minimize the potential for causing interference.

However, MURS rule 95.1303(b), “Authorized locations,” provides that “MURS operation is not authorized aboard aircraft in flight.” Note that this rule does not specifically prohibit “airborne use,” but only aircraft use. See “Recommendation 2,” below.

MURS is authorized for the frequencies 151.820 MHz, 151.880 MHz, 151.940 MHz, 154.570 MHz, and 154.600 MHz The authorized bandwidth is 11.25 kHz on frequencies 151.820 MHz, 151.880 MHz and 151.940 MHz. The authorized bandwidth is 20.0 kHz on frequencies 154.570 and 154.600 MHz. These frequencies are in a part of the spectrum that should make them physically suitable for avian telemetry.

Vendors may not find the MURS rules suitable to their equipment. There is no frequency coordination in MURS. All users have access to all of the frequencies. Therefore, interference is a possibility. MURS transmitters are limited to two watts output power.
The likelihood of interference on a MURS frequency depends on whether there are other users in the geographic area of interest. Some MURS frequencies are well used by construction crews, drive-in fast food restaurants, and institutional users. This is because although MURS is a new radio service, its frequencies have been in commercial use for some time. But it could just as well be underused or unused in an area of interest. MURS frequency usage is typically an urban phenomenon.

MURS requires no FCC license application and no fees. MURS does not require a license document because it is one of several radio services with a special statutory exemption.

Researchers might also find MURS to be useful for voice communications on the ground. Vendors are slowly starting to make handheld radios for MURS. Station identification is not required in MURS.


The Experimental Radio Service is often a service of last resort for temporary radio operations not provided for under other FCC rules. Ornithologists might consider applying for Part 5 Experimental Radio Service licenses for their telemetry projects.

This service has an expansive mandate. FCC rule 5.5, “Definition of terms,” defines the Experimental Radio Service as “A service in which radio waves are employed for purposes of experimentation in the radio art or for purposes of providing essential communications for research projects that could not be conducted without the benefit of such communications.”

Fundamental requirements of obtaining a Part 5 license include:

  • Use of proper FCC forms or online application
    ·    Payment of $50.00 fee
    ·    Proposed frequency or frequencies
    ·    Full technical disclosure of equipment proposed
    ·    Detailed narrative of experiment
    ·     Acceptance of a temporary license

The applicant must propose a frequency or frequencies. The FCC will not do this for the applicant. These frequencies should be within as narrow a range as possible. The Experimental Radio Service does not have a specific band allocated to it. All reasonable frequencies are “on the table” as long as the applicant can justify them.

If the frequencies proposed are not exclusively within the FCC’s jurisdiction — that is, if they include frequencies allocated for federal agency use — the FCC attempts to coordinate (obtain agreement on) the applicant’s proposed frequencies with NTIA and with the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), a council of radio chiefs of the various agencies.

Equipment used under a Part 5 license need not be separately FCC authorized. The license application must describe the technical parameters of the equipment, as well as: (1) A description of the nature of the research project being conducted; (2) A showing that communications facilities are necessary for the research project involved; and (3) A showing that existing communications facilities are inadequate or unavailable.


According to the frequency coordinator for this part of the spectrum (Personal Communications Industry Association), this is a shared frequency that is available to states and universities. Many scientists who use wildlife telemetry use these frequencies because the university owns receivers in these frequencies. However, these frequencies are used by a wide variety of users, including some that use high-powered transmitters, even in rural areas, because it includes forestry uses and highway maintenance. As a result, interference with the signal emitted from the transmitters on birds is a real concern.

Note that this band is not authorized for wildlife telemetry. Though interference from the low-powered transmitters used in ornithological research is unlikely, should it occur, it could result in an action by the FCC against the researcher.


This section of the frequency spectrum is limited to use by federal agencies and their employees. The use is coordinated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The Ornithological Council has  asked two federal agencies if they would object to allowing the use of these frequencies for avian telemetry by non-government employees. The Ornithological Council will be making the same inquiry of other federal agencies. If they do not object, the Ornithological Council will ask the NTIA to approve this use; FCC approval would also be required. In addition, ornithologists who then wish to use these frequencies would be required to work with the frequency coordinators for the federal agencies to be sure that their proposed use does not interfere with other users in the same area.

Additional resources on wildlife telemetry

Forum on Wildlife Telemetry – Innovations, Evaluations, and Research Needs

[U.S. Geological Survey.  1997.  Forum on Wildlife Telemetry: Innovations,
evaluations, and Research Needs; 21-23 September 1997, Snowmass Village, Colorado.
Program and Abstracts.  U.S. Geological Survey and The Wildlife Society. 82pp].

This report was prepared for the Ornithological Council by:

Bennett Z. Kobb
Consultant in Telecommunications
PO Box 4749, Arlington VA 22204-0749

Bennett Kobb is an Arlington, Va.-based writer, researcher and consultant in technology policy and electronic publishing. He is the author of Wireless Spectrum Finder, the McGraw-Hill handbook of U.S. radio frequency allocations, now in its seventh edition.

In the early 1980s, he was editor of Cellular Radio News and Personal Communications magazine, the first periodicals for the cellular telephone industry. He founded Federal Communications TechNews, which was acquired by Telecommunications Reports in 1991 and is still published as TR Wireless. He is the co-founder and was the first executive director of the Wireless Information Networks Forum (WINForum), a trade association established by leading technology firms. Most recently, he was a Technology Analyst at the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy in Washington, D.C., where he focused on Internet governance, broadcasting, and wireless regulation.

Additional information was provided by Ellen Paul, Executive Director of the Ornithological Council.