# How the Radio Spectrum Works

You've probably heard about "AM radio" and "FM radio," "VHF" and "UHF" television, "citizens band radio," "short wave radio" and so on. Have you ever wondered what all of those different names really mean? What's the difference between them?

A radio wave is an electromagnetic wave propagated by an antenna. Radio waves have different frequencies, and by tuning a radio receiver to a specific frequency you can pick up a specific signal.

In the United States, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) decides who is able to use which frequencies for which purposes, and it issues licenses to stations for specific frequencies. See How Radio Works for more details on radio waves.

In the same way, AM radio is confined to a band from 535 kilohertz to 1,700 kilohertz (kilo meaning "thousands," so 535,000 to 1,700,000 cycles per second). So an AM (amplitude modulated) radio station that says, "This is AM 680 WPTF" means that the radio station is broadcasting an AM radio signal at 680 kilohertz and its FCC-assigned call letters are WPTF.

Common radio frequency bands include the following:

• AM radio - 535 kilohertz to 1.7 megahertz
• Short wave radio - bands from 5.9 megahertz to 26.1 megahertz
• Citizens band (CB) radio - 26.96 megahertz to 27.41 megahertz
• Television stations - 54 to 88 megahertz for channels 2 through 6
• FM radio - 88 megahertz to 108 megahertz
• Television stations - 174 to 220 megahertz for channels 7 through 13

What is funny is that every wireless technology you can imagine has its own little band. There are hundreds of them! For example:

Why is AM radio in a band at 550 kilohertz to 1,700 kilohertz, while FM radio is in a band at 88 to 108 megahertz? It is all completely arbitrary, and a lot of it has to do with history.

AM radio has been around a lot longer than FM radio. The first radio broadcasts occurred in 1906 or so, and frequency allocation for AM radio occurred during the 1920s (The predecessor to the FCC was established by Congress in 1927.). In the 1920s, radio and electronic capabilities were fairly limited, hence the relatively low frequencies for AM radio.

Television stations were pretty much non-existent until 1946 or so, which is when the FCC allocated commercial broadcast bands for TV. By 1949, a million people owned TV sets, and by 1951 there were 10 million TVs in America.

FM radio was invented by a man named Edwin Armstrong in order to make high-fidelity (and static-free) music broadcasting possible. He built the first station in 1939, but FM did not become really popular until the 1960s. Hence the higher frequencies for FM radio.