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Illegal Broadcasting

What constitutes illegal broadcasting, what the penalties are and how to report it.

Ofcom is responsible for ensuring that the radio spectrum is not misused. The greatest threat comes from illegal broadcasters who operate with total disregard for authorised radio users.

The penalties for the criminal offence of illegal broadcasting are:

  • an unlimited fine and/or two years in prison, plus
  • anyone convicted of an offence is barred from working on a legal station for 5 years.

What is illegal broadcasting?

Illegal broadcasts are made by broadcasters that do not have a licence issued under Section 8 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006. Independent broadcasters must also have a broadcasting licence issued by Ofcom.

Why is illegal broadcasting a problem?

Illegal broadcasting is a criminal and anti-social activity and station operations are a menace to legal broadcasters and the public alike. They:

  • cause interference to the broadcasts of legal radio stations depriving them of audience and the public of the ability to listen to the station of their choice.
  • steal frequencies and space on the radio spectrum and their use of poor transmitting equipment makes interference an inevitable consequence of their activities.
  • unauthorised use of premises as transmitter sites leads to criminal damage and theft - a burden carried by the owners or residents of the premises used.
  • pay no business, council, VAT or income taxes and therefore take from, rather than contribute to, the communities they claim to serve.
  • they disrupt the vital communications of the safety of life services, particularly air traffic control.

How does a typical illegal broadcaster operate?

A typical illegal broadcaster will identify what they think is a clear slot in the FM broadcasting band (87.5 - 108 MHz) irrespective of radio spectrum planning considerations designed to avoid interference and they will establish a transmitter site on high ground or the roof of a council tower block. Use of the latter site normally involves breaking locks to gain access to the roof and tapping into the power supply in a lift motor and stealing electricity. A transmitter will then be concealed in the lift motor room or ventilation shaft.

Quite often the transmitter is fed by a signal from the broadcasting studio which may be several miles away via a microwave radio link. An antenna on the roof radiates the signal from the main transmitter.

Ofcom is addressing the problem proactively, listening to the broadcasts of illegal stations from its monitoring station to gain information, such as the telephone numbers used in a station’s operation, which network operators may cut off if they are being used for illegal activity. Other information gained from this monitoring, such as companies and individuals using a station for advertising, helps to support enforcement action.

The chart below details the number of operations (raids) against the number of different stations per year since 1991 and the number of convictions and average fines imposed by the courts.

Year Stations Total Operations Convictions Average Fines £ Average Costs £
1991 127 475 103 242 239
1992 113 520 70 99 172
1993 148 611 36 209 297
1994 164 570 61 503 328
1995 166 645 57 266 243
1996 171 842 28 87 298
1997 169 820 41 193 340
1998 177 928 53 452 585
1999 239 1414 47 229 307
2000 231 1494 41 377 302
2001 248 1438 20 397 761
2002 209 1046 49 417 296
2003 175 877 71 556 492
2004 171 1021 52 333 1059
2005 177 770 58 563 452
2006 226 1085 63 118 327

Anyone involved with illegal broadcasting, even if they only allow their premises to be used, or if they advertise on a station commits an offence. The maximum penalties, at Crown Court, are an unlimited fine and two years in prison.

In this section

Illegal Broadcasting Factsheet  PDF Document  (506 kB)

Published 06|07|08

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