In a long-awaited decision, the FCC, at its July 13, 2017, Open Meeting acted to update its equipment authorization procedures and rules in a number of significant ways that manufacturers, importers, retailers, and others in supply chain for radio frequency (“RF”) would be well advised to heed. In its First Report and Order in ET-Docket No 15-170, following a 2015 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission eliminated the verification and Declaration of Conformity (“DoC”) self-approval procedures in favor of a new Supplier’s Declaration of Conformity (“SDoc”) process, adopted rules to codify and refine permitted e-labeling practices, streamlined some aspects and clarified others of the importation rules the FCC oversees, and revised its measurement procedures and rules, including more direct cross-references to the FCC Laboratory’s Knowledge Database (“KDB”). The new rules go into effect immediately upon upcoming publication in the Federal Register, except that some provisions will be delayed to the extent they implicate Office of Management and Budget, OMB, review of new or modified information collection requirements.

Supplier’s Declaration of Conformity

The newly fashioned SDoC procedure will apply to devices in categories that were either subject to verification or the Declaration of Conformity (“DoC”) process. Under the SDoC process, in contrast with today’s DoC procedure, there is no need for testing by accredited laboratories, especially in light of “significant improvements in and standardization of test standards and procedures (and the equipment used).” Rather, the “less rigorous” verification testing requirements will apply to all devices under the SDoC. However, lest there be an unwarranted conclusion the FCC is relaxing its expectations for testing, the Commission underscored that it reserves the right to demand for review the testing upon which any SDoC relies. While the Commission will continue to provide guidance as to acceptable test procedures and standards for SDoC-eligible devices, the Commission retains some of the current flexibility for demonstrating compliance – for devices subject to verification in particular – in alternative ways and specifies that other “measures” may be acceptable to validate the compliance of a device. Further, the FCC noted that there may be certain types of RF devices authorized via SDoC that are found to be more likely to cause harmful interference, in which case the Commission could remove such devices from its self-approval procedure and impose equipment authorization requirements – i.e., certification by application – on new such devices before they can, generally, be marketed or operated.

The SDoC process will not include the requirement, currently imposed only on DoC devices, for displaying the FCC logo, although the logo may continue to be used on otherwise compliant SDoC devices at the discretion of the responsible party. However all devices eligible for SDoC will be required to display a compliance statement and provide the identity of the responsible party. The Commission cautioned that the FCC logo is not a substitute for the compliance statement. The FCC allowed that the SDoC compliance statement may be included with other information provided to the user instead of being displayed on the device itself. The Commission also tightened up the responsible party obligations, specifically requiring that the party responsible for compliance with the FCC Rules for a device or radio (whether the manufacturer, importer, or import broker) be identified in the compliance statement, along with contact information (telephone number or Internet-based means of contact, subject to certain restrictions) and must have a U.S. presence. The compliance statement may, but need not, include other required information under the particular rules by which the device operates.

The Commission rejected the suggestion that the DoC process remain in effect for Part 18 industrial, scientific, and medical devices currently subject to DoC. Recognizing that industry has yet to establish definitive test procedures for these devices, the FCC noted that guidance is available through the OET MP-5 test procedure, by which will continue to apply to all Part 18 devices, and that efforts are underway to generate specific test standards augmenting the existing OET MP-5 test procedure. The FCC will explicitly rely on its Office of Engineering and Technology (“OET”) to provide any additional guidance to explain and supplement that test procedure document necessitated by evolving technology and applicant questions.

Under current Parts 15 and 18 of the FCC rules, for certain unintentional radiators, a responsible party can choose to use the certification process in lieu of DoC. The First Report and Order maintained that option and explicitly provides, for those devices, they may undergo the more rigorous certification process or the new SDoC process.

The Commission provided several transitions for the new SDoC process and elimination of the old processes. The new SDoC procedure will exist alongside the current processes of verification and DoC for one year. Manufacturers and other responsible parties may continue to self-approve products using the existing DoC or verification procedures for up to one year from the effective date of the First Report and Order. Further, the Commission provided that it will consider any equipment self-approved using verification or DoC prior to the end of the one-year transition period to have a valid authorization in perpetuity, provided the equipment is “not modified in a manner that would have required a new authorization under those rules.”

Electronic Labeling and Online Access to Regulatory Information

The First Report and Order codified the FCC’s electronic labeling procedures in furtherance of the Enhance Labeling, Accessing, and Branding of Electronic Licenses Act (“E-LABEL Act”). The Act applies to all RF devices the Commission authorizes that have the integrated “capability to digitally display labeling and regulatory information.” In response to the Congress’s mandate that the FCC “promulgate regulations or take other appropriate action, as necessary, to allow manufacturers of radio frequency devices with [digital] displays the option to use electronic labeling for the equipment in place of affixing physical labels to the equipment,” the First Report and Order adopted a final, permissive electronic labeling rule, with some exceptions.

The FCC has now incorporated into its rules a maximum “three step” access requirement for when electronic labeling would be permissible. (Again, e-labeling is never mandatory.) Step one would be a user accessing the device settings menu on the digital display. As an example of one “characteristic sequence,” accessing a submenu of legal information in step two and then a further submenu of FCC compliance information in step three would qualify. However, recognizing that there may be a lack of clarity in specific situations, the FCC directed OET to provide guidance in response to specific questions regarding compliance via the KDB inquiry process.

Specific instructions on accessing the labeling and compliance information must be included with the device (e.g., in the packaging material or operating instruction booklet). Alternatively, the responsible party can rely on a product-related website provided that the packaging material for the device states that the information is available on the Internet and provides “effective instructions” to access the relevant website (i.e., the instructions do not lead to a dead link or otherwise fail to provide sufficient information necessary to access the labeling and regulatory information).

The FCC prohibited other forms of electronic labeling such as Radio Frequency Identification (“RFID”) tags or Quick Response (“QR”) codes to substitute for the on-screen information display, or otherwise permit displays that require the use of special accessories, supplemental software, or similar plug-ins. While the Commission does not preclude the use of screen locks, passcodes, or similar security protections designed to control overall device access and use and implemented by the owner(s)/user(s) of a device, it will prohibit features specifically designed to control access to FCC-related information, such as a special key.

The new rules, in limited instances, will allow electronic labeling for devices that do not include an integrated screen provided such devices can only operate in conjunction with a device that has a screen. To be clear, the First Report and Order underscored that this exception only applies to devices with no operation or functionality as an RF device unless connected to the device having an electronic display, i.e., with no stand-alone utility.

As with traditional labeling requirements, the Commission adopted a legibility requirement for electronic labeling. The FCC also warned that the display may not be “too dim or displayed for too short a duration to be easily read.” By analogy, “just as physical labels must be ‘permanently affixed,’ . . . electronic labels must not be easily removed or replaced” or subject to modification by someone other than the responsible party.

While the First Report and Order explains that electronic labeling, if otherwise complaint, would apply broadly to information that must otherwise be placed on a device, it notes there are exceptions, “for example, when a message provides vital information about the use or deployment of RF equipment that a user would need to know before activating the device to look at a screen and it is not practical to expect the user to have ready access to the instruction manual or product website, then an electronic label will not be appropriate.” Accordingly, the FCC warns that some safety-related warnings and other information, “given the context of their purpose,” may not be appropriate and physical labels may still be required. The First Report and Order noted specific exceptions to e-labeling under the Part 95 Personal Radio Service rules, labeling requirements for Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacons under Part 80, Part 87 labeling requirements for Emergency Locator Transmitters, or where a physical labeling requirement is incorporated in “documents incorporated by reference in our rules.” Further, the Commission’s rules requiring “the placement of warning statements or other information on device packaging or in user manuals or make information available at the point of sale are outside the scope of the E-LABEL Act” and the corresponding obligations are unchanged by the First Report and Order.

The electronic labeling rules will not obviate the need for separate labeling that serves purposes at the time of marketing or sale or during importation or distribution. The FCC noted that “[e]lectronic label information cannot reasonably be expected to be viewable when devices are packaged and encased in shipping materials and are uncharged or powered down.” Finding that temporary physical labels “will support ongoing oversight and importantly provides everyone in the supply chain, including wholesalers, distributors, and retailers, as well as initial purchasers [and Customs agents], an obvious assertion that a device comports with our technical requirements and is legal to import/sell/purchase in the U.S.,” the Commission will require that RF devices or their packaging be labeled so compliance with the FCC’s equipment authorization regulations can be readily identified “whether with a stick-on label or printing on the packaging or other similar means.”

The Commission also seized the opportunity to specifically adopt a rule for labeling small devices without the capability for an electronic display. In those cases, identifying information may be placed in a device’s user manual if it cannot be displayed on the device in four-point type or larger.

Modified Importation Rules

As expected, the First Report and Order eliminated the requirement to file the FCC’s specific customs declaration (FCC Form 740) and modifies the rules specifying responsibility for the compliance of imported RF products. Responding to a variety of developments in recent years, including the “overlap of information” required on FCC Form 740 with information the Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) agency collects routinely for imported goods and enhancements to its new electronic filing system, the Commission will discontinue use of FCC Form 740. The FCC emphasized that it is not “our intention to ask CBP to modify its filing requirements to ‘make up’ for the cessation of our data collection.” Rather, the Commission expects “the data currently collected by CBP, when considered along with other publicly available material, will satisfy [The FCC’s] compliance objectives and continue to support appropriate enforcement actions.” The Commission expects to monitor the situation in case future needs arise for further action.

At the same time, the Commission underscored that it is “not eliminating the requirement that there is an entity that assumes responsibility for the compliance of [an imported RF] device.” Section 2.1203 is modified to require a responsible party – the importer or ultimate consignee, or their designated customs broker – to “determine” that imported devices comply compliance with the Commission’s importation regulations and will continue to provide a variety of remedies if non-complaint information is imported. The FCC, in short, despite elimination of the FCC Form 740 filing requirement, will continue to enforce the importation-related responsible party’s obligation to consider “whether an RF device meets the qualifications for entry and that it can document how it made that determination upon request by the Commission.” For clarity, the FCC added that this change “does not relieve from liability any other party within our jurisdiction who is liable for a violation of our rules.”

The First Report and Order adopted the Commission’s proposal to permit importation of up to 400 devices of any type (licensed or unlicensed) for demonstration purposes at trade shows provided that those devices will not be sold or marketed. Written approval from the agency can be sought to exceed that number in specific situations.

Further, realizing that “importers would like to continue to import basic varieties of musical greeting cards, quartz watches, calculators, and similar devices with very low, battery-only power,” the Commission retains an importation exemption that applies to unintentional radiators that operate only on low level battery power. Finally, the FCC revises its rules to allow an individual to import up to three devices, including those covered under the current exemption as well as intentional RF transmitters identified under our rules as client or subscriber devices for the individual’s own use.

Measurement Procedures and KDB Guidance

The Commission amended Part 2 of the rules to include references to the advisory information in the Commission’s Knowledge Database, which has long been a source of crucial guidance even though not codified. The FCC hopes to direct increased attention to the guidance that the KDB can provide. Specifically, the FCC has also revised the sections that set forth measurement procedures for RF devices operating under the Part 15 unlicensed device rules and Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) Equipment under the Part 18 rules to reference KDB advisory procedures in order to aid parties seeking to obtain equipment authorizations to select and employ a suitable process for the tested device.

The Commission revised the specific measurement procedures in Part 15 to eliminate redundancy with the ANSI C63.4-2014 and ANSI C63.10-2013 procedures, but also to clarify when specific variances from those procedures would be permitted, such as the frequency range of measurement set out in the rules. The FCC thereby hoped to avoid ambiguity should a future version of ANSI C63.10-2013 exclude a frequency range or a party is relying on an alternative procedures permitted by the rules.

Finally, the Commission changed the rules to make plain that ANSI C63.26-2015 is an acceptable measurement procedure for equipment that operates in authorized radio services specifically covered by the measurement standard, where required in Part 2 of the rules. But because the ANSI standard does not cover all of the license services, the First Report and Order retained the additional procedures in the current rules to cover these cases.