Watchfire Raises Warning Of FCC Issues With Low-Cost Asian-Made LED Digital Signs

May 2, 2017 by Dave Haynes

Via Billboard Insider

Danville, Illinois-based outdoor LED sign-maker Watchfire is raising warnings to prospective buyers about what it says are the risks of buying lower-cost LED boards from overseas, because some may exceed federal electromagnetic emissions standards and could be ordered switched off.

The company has produced a white paper suggesting there is mounting evidence that manufacturers of LED billboards and digital signs are coming over from China (and more generally Asia) from manufacturers who are either ignoring or disobeying this federal requirement.

The FCC requires that electronic equipment, such as digital signs, be tested to ensure they are not radiating interference that exceeds specified levels. The paper notes how a fast food franchise operator in Texas received a cease and desist order from the FCC for operating an unlicensed radio station that was found to be interfering with important communications in the area, include radio transmissions from a nearby airport.

Complying with the order involved shutting off the LED signs at two city locations, says Watchfire.

Watchfire asserts that the design architecture “used by most manufacturers in Asia requires an intermediate controller unit called a ‘receiver card’ which sits between the controller and the sign’s LED panels. It is a design that focuses on delivering a cheap product, and unfortunately it also delivers harmful emissions.”

“We have received third-party verification that this design, which cannot be adjusted in the field, does not meet FCC laws because it emits too much interference.”

The argument and issue is very similar to concerns about using cheap Android set-top boxes and sticks as digital signage players, which may also be on the wrong side of FCC regulations. 

The hardware design outlined by Watchfire may cut equipment costs, but the real cost implication may be in paying for full testing and certification by a certified laboratory.

Watchfire and the relatively small number of US-based manufacturer of competing products have, of course, business motives for pointing all this out. They’re going to lose most bids if buyers only look at price. But they can make arguments around things like quality assurance, customer support and compliance with not only the FCC, but UL.

Watchfire’s report notes that the FCC regulations place the burden of responsibility of operation, and the remediation of electromagnetic interference, on the sign owner. So if a business owner buys an LED sign that is not FCC compliant and there’s a complaint, it’s “the business owner’s responsibility to shut down the sign, correct the issue, and pay any fines levied by the FCC.”

The chances are probably not good that a manufacturer on the other side of the Pacific is going to come to the rescue.

This is the second move in recent weeks by U.S.-based LED board-makers against their (typically) lower cost Asian competitors. Atlanta-based NanoLumens recently issued a press statement about the software security risks of buying Chinese-made LED boards.

The Watchfire report is a free PDF download.

Billboard Insider has an interview with a Watchfire exec that goes into more detail.

The obvious concern here would be with outdoor LED displays, but I’m going to assume indoor, direct view LED tech is not all that different and could also raise an issue.

  1. John Hu says:

    My understanding is that Watchfire uses components and sub-assemblies from Asia and does the final assembly locally in the US like 90% of all “USA based” companies. However, I do agree the designers of the PCB gerber must take into consideration EMC and FCC requirements so they are not “skirting” compliance.

    When we did our EMC testing, a majority of the EMC emission actually came from the logic card and even the CAT5 cable which we promptly switched to shielded versions of both.

    Asia has been proven as the world’s best manufacturing with Apple and Samsung leading the way. The point is not to invoke a “knee-jerk” reaction to disqualify all “Asian” suppliers as junk, but to differentiate between the good and the bad.

  2. Izzie Enwall says:

    A White Paper “suggesting”……?
    “Mounting Evidence”……?
    “Received Third Party Verification”…..

    Sounds like a lot of speculation and scare tactics.
    I would have paid better attention with Names, cold hard know, real journalism?
    I know, its a lost art…

  3. If you are buying from Asia, it’s better to specify what is needed. The same manufacturer makes products for Europe, North America, Asia or Africa with different quality and certification standards. Just specify that you need FCC compliance or EMC compliance or UL and many factories do have these certification. Price model goes up as you need 6 to 8 layer PCBA to achieve these standards. However i do not agree with the statement of watchfire about the receiving card with harmful emissions. You can shield this and you also have EMC/FCC variant of receiving cards. The responsibility comes back to the buyer, if they are only interested in a cost model or they want compliance.

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