From reading the constitution, it appears that regulation of radio is outside the scope of Congress's powers, and should therefore be determined by states. Why is radio federally regulated?

2 Answers 2


Commerce Clause

US Constitution Article I Section 8:

The Congress shall have power [...] To regulate commerce [...] among the several states [...]

This was explicitly used as the justification for federal regulation of radio, going all the way back to the Radio Act of 1912, Pub. L. 62-263 (37 Stat. 302):

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That a person, company, or corporation within the jurisdiction of the United States shall not use or operate any apparatus for radio communication as a means of commercial intercourse among the several States, or with foreign nations, or upon any vessel of the United States engaged in interstate or foreign commerce, or for the transmission of radiograms or signals the effect of which extends beyond the jurisdiction of the State or Territory in which the same are made, or where interference would be caused thereby with the receipt of messages or signals from beyond the jurisdiction of the said State or Territory, except under and in accordance with a license, revocable for cause, in that behalf granted by the Secretary of Commerce and Labor upon application therefor ;

Nearly every meaningful radio transmission has an effect that extends beyond state lines, so this covers practically everything.

This has been upheld by the Supreme Court:

As a general rule, any time you wonder why the federal government is allowed to regulate something that isn't explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, nine times out of ten the answer will be "Commerce Clause".

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – feetwet
    Jul 3, 2022 at 16:42

The Commerce Clause is the primary reason (and so Nate's answer is correct) but the secondary reason for radio (and communications spectra generally) is because officially the federal government retains sovereign ownership of all broadcast rights in all frequencies and merely leases them to private users. You can think of the radio spectra as analogous to public lands. Once they were discovered, the federal government claimed ownership of them, and unlike public lands they have never sold any of them.

Even if a more restrictive reading of the Commerce Clause powers were to become current in the federal courts, little about the government's ability to regulate radio would change, because they could simply impose whatever regulatory regime they desired as a condition of leasing any part of the spectrum.

  • 1
    How did they originally make that claim to ownership of the entire RF spectrum?
    – Someone
    Jul 2, 2022 at 2:25
  • I believe the theoretical position is that since at the time of its discovery no private individual had any existing title to it, within the physical borders of the US it all belonged to the People, as the sovereign power, until such time as they chose to sell it. And they never have. They have only leased it.
    – tbrookside
    Jul 2, 2022 at 11:46
  • 1
    Isn't "The people" different to "The federal government"? (Like, the 12th article of the bill of rights mentions them clearly separately.) Jul 2, 2022 at 12:25
  • If "the people" own it, doesn't that mean everyone has a right to transmit anything on any frequency?
    – Someone
    Jul 2, 2022 at 13:34
  • @Someone, would you make the same argument that you should be able to build your own home on a public park, because it's owned by "the people"? Jul 2, 2022 at 14:38

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