Digital radio scanners, also known as ‘radio receivers,’ are devices that are able to tune and filter a variety of radio signals. This is achieved through a variety of microprocessor units, which give the standard radio scanner the ability to track hundreds of signals in just a few seconds. Despite being used to monitor emergency signals, digital radio scanners can be used for a range of legal purposes.
Radio scanners have been around for close to five decades, originally being used by radio gurus to ‘plug into’ unknown stations and amateur broadcasts. Enthusiasts would use scanners to search for local signals within their area – typically broadcast on a terrestrial radio frequency – and ‘patch in’ to listen to various spoken word broadcasts, musical playbacks, and other radio programming.
This is the typical analog, or terrestrial radio scanner, a type of radio scanner that’s still frequently used today. However, while these make up the bulk of radio scanners, they’re by no means the only form of scanner available. Many radio enthusiasts and broadcasters are now starting to use digital radio scanners, due to the massive recent increase in digital radio services and subscriptions.
Theoretically, these digital radio scanners can be used to monitor almost any unencrypted digital radio signal, giving them the ability to track police and other emergency broadcasts. However, in practical terms it’s often difficult to achieve this due to encryption and radio encoding. Almost all modern digital radio scanners are also capable of receiving and tracking standard analog signals.
How do digital radio scanners work?
Early radio scanners were somewhat slow and ungainly, taking hours to scan just hundreds of radio frequencies and even longer to identify a signal. In contrast, today’s top digital radio scanners use a variety of high-speed tracking systems to monitor hundreds of frequencies at once, able to find and monitor a digital radio signal in as little as a second, even amongst hundreds or thousands of others.
This is achieved by a complex system of processors, which monitor different frequencies for audio activity. These signals need to be unencrypted or unencoded for the scanner to work properly – the signals which are encrypted are not able to be monitored. Thankfully, the vast majority of signals – at least those used in the United States – are left unencrypted and can be found using a scanner.
The type of signals monitored using a digital radio scanner can include law enforcement signals, a range of emergency services signals, and even radio signals sent out by news and media companies. Almost all digital two-way communications can be tracked and monitored, allowing a digital radio scanner to pick up the signal from simple ‘walkie-talkie’ communication in almost any area.
Is using a digital radio scanner legal?
Yes, for the most part, digital radio scanners are completely legal. The United States has a range of different laws related to radio signals and encrypted communications, although few directly ban the use of digital radio scanners, or even forbid it in certain circumstances. There are, however, a range of situations in which using a digital radio scanner may result in a violation of state or federal law.
These typically involve radio scanners being used to monitor law enforcement agencies before an illegal crime is committed, often to track police positioning. Although this law affects a very small amount of radio scanner users, it’s worth noting. Other countries may also impose restrictions on the use of digital radio scanners – if you’re unsure of their legality, check with your local authorities.
For the most part, however, using a digital radio scanner is an activity that’s neither banned nor even looked down upon by law enforcement. Fans of certain sports teams, particularly in the motorsports world, will often use scanners to listen in on team communications. This is completely legal, and an overwhelmingly popular tactic by NASCAR and other motor racing enthusiast groups.
There is one situation, however, in which scanners are banned and actively policed against. Digital radio scanners that are installed within a motor vehicle must, in some states, only be used by those with a FCC broadcasting license. This regulation exists to prevent vehicle owners from using radio scanners to avoid police roadblocks or alcohol testing areas, and is enforced in several major states.
While digital radio scanners are very much a niche electrical item, they’re embraced by their users as a powerful and helpful tool. Whether you’re a radio enthusiast or merely someone with an active interest in monitoring local law enforcement or amateur radio signals, using a digital radio scanner to do so can be rewarding, interesting, and quite inspiring, particularly when new signals are found.