Radio spectrum and the law

21 September 2016

In the UK the use of any radio transmitting device is required to be either licensed or specifically exempted from licensing under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 (WT Act 2006). For mobile telephones, the use of the spectrum by the network operators is licensed to cover the use of transmitters and repeaters which are under their control, while user devices (i.e.handsets) are covered by a general exemption. It should be noted in particular that cellular repeaters / boosters / enhancers are not exempted devices.

Other than as used in accordance with a licence (or exemption), the use of radio equipment is illegal.

Guide to the use of radio transmitters and the law
PDF, 62.4 KB

Guidance on Receive-Only Radio Scanners
PDF, 36.9 KB

Mobile phone, or cell phone, repeaters (also known as boosters, enhancers or amplifiers) are marketed as a technology to improve mobile network coverage.

Mobile repeaters are classed as radio apparatus and their use in the UK is regulated by the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006. It is unlawful to install or use this type of radio apparatus unless:

  • that is done under and in accordance with a specific wireless telegraphy licence granted by Ofcom; or
  • Ofcom has made regulations exempting the installation or use from the requirement for a licence.

Ofcom has not granted any licences for the installation or use of repeaters nor made any exemption regulations.  The unlicensed installation and use of a repeater would put the user at risk of prosecution under the 2006 Act. If found guilty users can face a fine of up to £5,000 and up to a year in prison.

Some advertisers of repeaters may claim that their products are authorised for use in the UK.

All radio apparatus placed on the market or put into service in the UK must meet the requirements of the Radio Equipment and Telecommunications Equipment Regulations 2000.

Femtocells and smart repeaters

Femtocells are small base station transmitters that may be installed by a user and connect to the host mobile operator network via a fixed broadband connection.  So-called “Smart Repeaters” are controlled by the mobile network via its transmission spectrum without a fixed physical connection.  Some mobile network operators are beginning to offer services using these devices which offer improved in-building coverage and data rates.

Although devices may be installed in user premises, a key feature is that they are monitored and controlled by the host network  to ensure they operate only within the terms and conditions of the network operators’ licences under which they are authorised.  Other types of stand-alone repeater which are not covered by the network licence nor exempted from licensing are not authorised.

The use of any apparatus, whether or not wireless telegraphy apparatus, for the purpose of interfering with any wireless telegraphy, is an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006.  The unlicensed transmission of radio signals and the interference with licensed services would cause offences under, respectively, sections 8 and 68 of the Act.

Ofcom is not able to grant authority for the sale, purchase or use of mobile phone jammers in the UK.  Placing them on the market and putting them into service are criminal offences under the Electromagnetic Compatibility Regulations 2006 (the EMC Regulations), and their use will involve commission of a criminal offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 (section 68).  There is no provision in either piece of legislation that, in effect, enables Ofcom to authorise the sale, purchase or use of a jammer. Information about this is published on our website at: Mobile phone jammers.

As an alternative, cellphone detectors that can give a visual/audible warning of an active cellphone within its coverage area, but without disrupting with the transmission may be used to help control the use of phones within a room or building.

May 2011

In 2004, the mobile phone industry introduced a code of practice about tracking which includes in its key principles that it should be consent-based and not undermine customer privacy or be used for unauthorised surveillance.  These activities are not regulated by Ofcom and are instead subject to national laws concerning privacy and data protection. 

The code of practice sets out the general principles governing the activity and gives advice on the implications for phone users and how to complain if a user has concerns about the activity.

Aside from commercially-based tracking or location services, the mobile phone networks have a legal duty to supply to relevant authorities, as far as technically feasible, the originating location of any 999 or 112 call for the purpose of directing an emergency response where a distressed caller may be too weak, confused or otherwise unable to convey accurate directions.  Under Home Office regulations, the networks are required to retain data records of all calls made for a period of 12 months.

Reference Information

May 2011

Ofcom regulates the operation of mobile networks in relation to their use of radio frequencies but does not have any duties related to the recommendations for exposure to EMF emissions. We do not set emission safety levels and we have neither the expertise nor the remit to participate in matters concerning biological or health research. However, the following general advice provides background information and indicates where further information may be found.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Code of best practice on mobile phone network development was updated in 2013.  This sets out (at paragraph 7.5) the need for certificates of International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) compliance to be provided with planning applications and for operators to continue to ensure all sites remain compliant.

Exposure guidelines for base stations

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is one of a number of public bodies which regulate work that causes or could cause EMF exposure of workers or the public and has published information which covers matters relating to mobile phone technology.  Public Health England has also published advice at Mobile phone base stations: radio waves and health.  

Ofcom has carried out measurements of representative samples of cellular base stations in publicly accessible areas which indicate that, even in the vicinity of cellular masts, measurements are consistently found to be very significantly below these levels.  Ofcom’s remit is restricted to carrying out sample measurements of emission levels so as to allow those with an interest to assess compliance with the above ICNIRP guidance.  Further information about Ofcom’s surveys of radio emissions near to mobile phone base stations are published in our website information sheet OfW80.

Reference Information

February 2016

Under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, all use of radio must be either licensed or specifically exempted from licensing.

While the spectrum for networks is licensed to individual operators, the installation and/or use of certain R&TTE compliant cellular terminal equipment (including cellular handsets, cellular dongles and multimedia or other devices with imbedded cellular communication facilities) is exempted from the need for a WT Act licence by the Wireless Telegraphy (Licence Exemption) Regulations 2003 (as amended), subject to meeting the relevant technical conditions and the requirements set out in the Regulations.

The Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 is the principal legislation on the regulation of radio spectrum in the UK and the powers available to Ofcom. This consolidated several earlier pieces of legislation with effect from 8 February 2007.

The Communications Act 2003 transferred regulatory powers, functions and responsibilities to Ofcom on spectrum and other matters and provides the overall statutory framework within which Ofcom operates.

The Radio Equipment and Telecommunications Terminal Equipment Regulations 2000 as amended by The Radio Equipment and Telecommunications Terminal Equipment (Amendment) Regulations 2003 give force to the European Commission R&TTE Directive and prescribe the conditions under which radio equipment may be placed on to the market.

In 1984, the Telecommunications Act set the framework for a competitive market for telecoms services by abolishing BT's exclusive right to provide services.  In the early 1990s the market was opened up and a number of new national Public Telecommunications Operators (PTOs) were given licences.

Prior to the 25 July 2003 any company operating in the UK had to do so under the appropriate telecommunications licence. The process required most companies to apply to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for such a licence before being able to operate and supply services to consumers. The responsibility for spectrum issues has since passed to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

For communications networks and service providers, a significant operational change was the ending of the Telecommunication Act licensing regime. Four EU Directives covering Framework, Authorisation, Access and Interconnection, and Universal Services were agreed in March 2002 with the aim of further developing a pro-competitive regulatory framework.  They were implemented on 25 July 2003.

The emphasis of these Directives is on light touch regulation, technology neutrality and greater consistency across Europe.  Provisions to implement these Directives were included in the Communications Act 2003 and the former licensing regime was replaced by a general authorisation regime with General Conditions of entitlement (that is, conditions which apply to all) and specific conditions (that is, conditions which apply to individuals).

Reference Information