Institute for Telecommunication Sciences / August 1912

August 1912: Federal Regulation of U.S. Airwaves Begins

On August 13,1912, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912 (Public Law 264), the first federal regulation on all radio transmissions in the United States. Prompted by the Titanic disaster earlier in the year this bill mandated trained radio users to monitor distress signals for any passenger ship in American waters. The Radio Act also required all broadcasters to receive a license. The provision was intended to reduce interference on emergency stations but it shaped broadcast radio, which was still in its infancy. The act gave the power of licensing and enforcement to the Department of Commerce and Labor (the Department of Labor was spun off in 1913). Commerce and Labor could impose fines of up to $2,500, seize broadcasting equipment, or revoke the license of broadcasters who failed to comply with the law. The Radio Act of 1912 was the first law to regulate land based radio operators and is considered to be the precedent for all regulation that came after it. Later laws created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and removed the burden of licensing and enforcement from the Department of Commerce. But the Department continued its radio work, advising the FCC and researching improvements in radio communication. Today, NTIA's Office of spectrum management regulates federal use of the spectrum, informed by the results of ITS research. ITS also helps solve the telecommunications problems of other federal agencies with expertise acquired over a century of research on behalf of the Department of Commerce.