Guide to FCC Certifications for IoT Products and Systems
Everything you need to know about obtaining FCC certifications for your IoT products and systems.
What is the "market pass" you need to bring an IoT project to market?
A Federal Communications Commission certification.
For any IoT deployment, a Federal Communications Commission Certification is not something to be neglected. It puts your product through multiple tests and certifies that your device only produces allowed levels of radiofrequency radiation. It ensures your device will not block other signals and affect people's health.
However, the application process can be challenging. On one hand, the test requires specialized equipment and software. On the other hand, the application process can be both time and money-consuming.
Other questions also add a layer to the application process, such as, “which FCC Certification should you apply for?” and “is there any way to make the application process more efficient and economical?”
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What an FCC certification is
- Which FCC regulations are applicable to IoT systems
- Common challenges in getting FCC certifications
- How you can build an IoT product without going through the certification process yourself
What is FCC Certification?
FCC certification is a certification that electronic and electrical devices used in the U.S. must obtain from the Federal Communications Commission. This certification verifies that the radio frequencies emitted from any electrical device fall under the limit established by the FCC.
“If you’re emitting on those frequencies, you have to certify that you meet all the rules like how much power you put out, how you interact with other devices,” said Mariano Goluboff, Senior Solution Architect at Particle. “The FCC doesn’t want a radio to go out, and all of a sudden, no cell phone in the area works.”
While designing printed circuit boards, a lot of effort is poured into minimizing undesirable signals, which can also be called “noise.” They can break the signal integrity, reduce functionality, cause erratic performance, and most importantly, affect nearby systems and human health conditions.
That’s why FCC Certification is vital to protect both device users and manufacturers.
Which FCC Regulations are Applicable to IoT Systems? What Types of IoT Devices Need to be FCC Certified?
IoT devices can be applied in many different contexts and with many other electrical devices that aren’t used solely for connectivity. It helps to be familiar with the applicable product categories for regulation, and determine which ones intersect with your IoT use case.
The radio frequencies that devices can emit can be divided into five categories, each accompanied by an applicable FCC category and regulations.
Category 1: The first category includes AC and DC motors, light switches (mechanical), and essential electric power tools, which are not designed for energy radiation. The Incidental Radiator of this category refers to the electrical devices that are not designed to intentionally use, generate or emit radio frequency energy over 9 kHz.
Category 2: The same devices as for Incidental Radiator with digital control are categorized into unintentional radiators. These devices use digital logic and send RF internally or use cables for external signal transmission.
Category 3: The intentional radiator category refers to devices that intentionally generate and emit energy wirelessly (radiation or induction), including Wi-Fi transmitters, Bluetooth or Bluetooth low energy devices, remote control units, wireless garage door openers, wireless alarm systems.
Category 4: Devices designed to provide energy for other than telecommunications purposes fall into the FCC category of industrial scientific and medical equipment. Halogen ballasts, fluorescent lighting, microwave ovens, arc welders, and medical diathermy machines are examples in this field.
Category 5: The last category encompasses products that use the licensed frequency spectrum, including cell phones, smartphones, base stations, mobile transmitters, aviation, marine radios, and low-power TV transmitters. Unlike the FCC categories mentioned above, there is no specific regulation targeting this category of equipment operating in licensed radio services. The regulation will be based on the frequency allocation of service.
All IoT devices will need to pass these tests based on their functionality and show their compliance with related FCC regulations. However, some products can be exempt if they qualify for an electromagnetic interference testing exemption.
Challenges in Getting IoT Devices and Systems Certified
Usually, most IoT devices require two certifications: FCC Part 15 Subpart B and FCC Part 15 Subpart C.
Subpart B is for unintentional radiators. It’s the least expensive and most easily obtained certification. In contrast, Subpart C for intentional radiators can be a huge financial burden for manufacturers.
How Much Does FCC Certification Cost? How Long Does it Take to Get an IoT System Certified?
The cost and duration of the application processes here should be used as a general reference. The exact time and cost it takes to obtain a certification will always depend on your individual case.
- Subpart B costs about $3k - $5k
- Subpart C can cost $40,000 or more
The FCC certification application should take around 8 -12 weeks. With the Telecommunication Certifications Body accelerating the process, the period could be shrunk to 1 - 2 weeks.
With Particle, the whole process can be done as a Studios engagement, our experienced Professional Engineering services team, which can help you get it done cheaper and faster than you might be able to on your own.
There are two paths to choose from:
- You can do the certification of both Subpart B and C yourself.
- You can use a pre-certified module that has modular approval and only do the Subpart B yourself.
What’s the usual timeline for FCC certification?
During this stage, you need to identify a list of applicable licenses and authorizations for your device and then reach out to the relevant agencies and bureaus. You also need to consult with FCC staff and your own legal counsel to identify the appropriate application forms, filing processes, and requests. The final step is to file the forms, applications, and special requests.
- Issue a public notice
- May choose to file an order of protection for proprietary information during the application process
- The 30th day is the deadline for all petitions to deny the application and comments
- FCC will choose to deny or proceed with the application process. Note: the FCC rarely allow the process to be 45 days later
- The final due date for replies to opposition to FCC applications
- Day 90 is the date for the initial information request.
- Information from all parties involved is required by the FCC, which include independent lab testing and supporting documents from the FCC
- The FCC usually issues the requests before the deadline but may issue subsequent requests later.
Typically, the FCC completes all the evaluations by day 180, and will issue order granting applications, and those with conditions, as well as those designating applications for hearing.
What's the Failure Rate for First-Time FCC Certifications
According to a report from Digi International, a leading cellular certification lab found that 80% of all new cellular designs fail certification the first time.
Do FCC Certifications Expire for IoT Devices?
FCC Certifications are handled by the Telecommunication Body (TCB), and the approval does not expire. However, some minor changes to the device or the device configuration may require a re-approval based on the original FCC certification.
How to Build an IoT Product Without Going Through the Entire FCC Certification Process Yourself
In general, you can expect to spend six to nine months and up to $200k acquiring FCC, PTCRB, OTA, and carrier certifications, along with RoHS compliance certifications.
The 80% failure rate of all first-time FCC certifications adds more risk and potential to push back your project milestones. But the first-time certifications are just the beginning. Once your devices are certified, you need to safely install them and avoid installing counterfeit certifications. Additionally, as you introduce new connected devices, you may need to get re-certified. Certification and re-certification is an oft-missed part of estimating the true total cost of ownership for an IoT deployment.
Setbacks here can easily lead your project to be canceled or delayed if it doesn’t go smoothly.
De-risking FCC Certification with Particle
One way to de-risk the certification process is to work with a third-party IoT partner like Particle. All Particle IoT devices are pre-certified, so you’ll spend less time working with your legal team and regulatory bodies on certification and more time focused on solving customer problems and building your product.
For example, Particle takes care of everything you need for Subpart C certification
"All Particle devices have necessary certifications for the United States, Canada, and European Union. Some devices may have additional certification, such as for Japan," said Rick Kaseguma, Senior Technical Documentation Writer at Particle. "Even for countries that are not in that list, it may be possible to use Particle devices without additional certification because they will allow the use of the FCC or EU certification instead of their own country-specific certification, even if they're not in the United States or EU."
Particle's modular approval from the FCC means that you can reuse the certification for Subpart C. The certification timeline can also be shortened from months to several days since you need to do only the self-declaration of compliance for Subpart B, which is a lot less onerous and cheaper.
Another way Particle makes FCC certification easier is through our integrated enterprise IoT platform. The tight integration between hardware (including modem, microcontroller, and EtherSIM), firmware, connectivity, and cloud API allows your entire IoT stack to be certified together, rather than obtaining certifications for each part.
“In some IoT platforms, [different devices] need to be separated, and this can affect you in different ways,” Rick added. “For example, even if you buy a SIM card from AT&T, intending to bundle it with a different company’s cellular modern IoT platform, there are still steps to be done because your entire assembly isn’t certified.”
Besides that, Particle’s Studios team can also help you redo the Subpart C certification when you make adjustments, such as changing to a higher gain antenna or an antenna of a different type.
“If you’re using a device with the same antenna that was used for the original Particle FCC certification, or a replacement antenna of the same type and equal or lesser gain in all frequency bands, you can avoid both certifications,” Rick said.
As for other potential certifications, depending on your product design and use cases, you could have additional safety certifications, such as Underwriters Laboratory certification for devices over a certain voltage.
By contrast, Particle devices are low-voltage, so there’s no need to apply for UL certification. However, if your product contains a built-in high voltage power supply and not a wall transformer, you might still need UL certification.