How Broadcast Fax Works

By: Dave Roos
Broadcast fax allows you to send more than once fax.
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

Broadcast fax is the ability to send a single fax to more than one person at the same time [source:]. Some fax machines can scan a document once and broadcast it to multiple recipients. But, when most people talk about broadcast fax, they're referring to third-party services that use fax server technology to send a single fax to hundreds or thousands of recipients at once.

Broadcast fax is a powerful tool for public relations professionals, who routinely send time-sensitive story ideas to hundreds of targeted journalists and publications simultaneously. According to a report by Davidson Consulting, broadcast fax was a $200 million industry worldwide in 2006.


Unfortunately, broadcast fax is also a powerful tool for fax spammers who flood thousands of fax machines with unsolicited "junk fax" advertisements, despite strict, Federal anti-spamming laws.

In this HowStuffWorks article, we'll look at the technology behind broadcast fax, its real-world applications and the legal issues surrounding its use and misuse.

Let's start with a look at fax servers, the key technology behind broadcast fax.


Fax Servers and Broadcast Fax Services

You can send faxes directly from your laptop.
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

Fax servers power broadcast fax. They're machines that run special software to electronically process and store incoming and outgoing faxes [source: Technology Association of Georgia]. The most important job of a fax server is to convert digital files into analog (or phone line) fax signals that can be sent to conventional fax machines.

Faxes are tricky because they can be sent and received by different kinds of machines that operate using different protocols and standards. Computers, for example, use something called Internet Protocol (IP) to send and receive data over a network. With Internet Protocol, an outgoing message is chopped up into small packets of data that are individually routed to the destination where they are reassembled using something called Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) [source: SearchVoIP].


Modern fax machines are digital -- meaning they communicate in 1s and 0s like computers -- but they send and receive that digital data over analog phone lines. Therefore, for a computer to communicate with a fax machine, all data needs to be converted to an analog signal that the fax machine can understand. That's the job of the fax server.

The fax server functions as a gateway between the IP computer network and the analog phone network. This technology is sometimes called FoIP (Fax over Internet Protocol). Read our article on FoIP for an in-depth explanation of how FoIP works.

Here are some common features of fax servers:

  • Send and receive faxes via e-mail or Web interface
  • Store and archive faxes
  • Track and report back on sent faxes
  • Automatically route faxes for cost-effectiveness and efficiency
  • Integrate with back-office applications for automated document delivery
  • Maintain group mailing lists
  • Broadcast faxes to many recipients at once

[source: Technology Association of Georgia]

If a company wants to take advantage of broadcast faxing, it has to make a decision: to host or not to host? It can purchase its own fax server (or multiple servers) and host its own broadcast faxes, or it can subscribe to a broadcast fax service that will host the faxes on its own servers. On the next page, we'll talk about the economics of broadcast fax.


Broadcast Fax Economics

Manage and send
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

Like most business decisions, this one comes down to economics. The company needs to weigh the costs of purchasing and administering fax-server hardware and software versus the cost of a third-party fax broadcasting service.

High-end enterprise fax servers can cost as much as $25,000 [source: CNet Shopper]. In-house fax servers might also require extra IT personnel or at least additional training for existing IT staff.


Fax broadcasting services typically charge per page with discounts for high-volume fax campaigns. A fax broadcast to a hundred recipients might cost $.09 per page, while a fax broadcast to several thousand recipients could be as low as $.02 per page. Most services only charge a client for successful faxes, excluding any wrong numbers, busy signals or other errors during the broadcast.

With fax broadcasting services, the client manages fax campaigns through a Web interface. Here, the client can upload Excel spreadsheets or .csv (comma-separated value) files to create mailing lists for different fax campaigns. The broadcast fax service stores all of these lists for easy access in the future.

Clients then use the Web interface to upload the document(s) they want to fax, whether it's in Microsoft Word or Excel, an image file or a PDF. Some broadcast fax services help the client create a cover sheet with the company's logo, letterhead and personalized recipient information.

Like in-house fax servers, broadcast fax services allow clients to schedule fax deliveries for a certain day and time or for off-peak hours overnight. Broadcast fax services can also assign billing codes to fax jobs, track fax campaigns and produce reports on how many faxes went through, which ones should be resent and which ones should be removed from the list.

Some fax broadcast services also help clients comply with Federal and State anti-spam regulations by automatically removing recipients who have opted-out of receiving further faxes or who are listed on "Do Not Send" databases.

Now let's look at some of the common business applications of broadcast fax.


Broadcast Fax Applications

Travel agents send broadcast faxes advertising sales.
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

The public relations industry is one of the heaviest users of broadcast fax. As we mentioned earlier, public relations professionals often send story ideas and press releases to dozens or hundreds of journalists and publications at once.

Popular broadcast fax services like PR Newswire help PR professionals target their PR campaigns by choosing from hundreds of thousands of stored journalist contacts.


Crisis communications is another branch of public relations that uses broadcast fax. In the event of an emergency or disaster, the public relations department of a company can employ broadcast fax as one of several ways to reach employees and constituents.

There are dozens of companies that offer mass notification or emergency notification services that can instantly send thousands of messages across all available platforms: e-mail, phone, SMS and fax.

Broadcast fax is particularly useful for any industry that relies heavily on fax technology to handle internal and external communications. Real estate, for example, is still a fax-heavy industry. Agents can fax listings to multiple clients. Regional managers for large real-estate firms can fax reports to multiple property managers [source: Xerox Corp].

Broadcast fax has always been popular for targeted advertising and promotions:

  • Airlines, cruise ship operators and hotels: special, last-minute promotions to thousands of travel agents [source: Its the Fax].
  • Restaurants: lunch menus and weekly specials to local offices that have signed up to receive them.
  • Businesses of all sizes and budgets: special deals to existing clients.

Fax advertising, however, has come under increasing legal scrutiny over the past decade, leading to strict Federal and State anti-spam laws and costly lawsuits. In the next section, we'll look at the legal restrictions on broadcast fax.


Broadcast Fax and the Law

Laws are trying to prevent junk fax.
Photo courtesy King County Solid Waste Division

In 1994, the U.S. federal government passed a law severely restricting the legality of unsolicited broadcast faxes. According to Title 47 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, "It shall be unlawful for any person within the United States to use any telephone facsimile machine, computer, or other device to send an unsolicited advertisement to a telephone facsimile machine" [source: Broadcast Fax and Junk Mail Illegal]. According to Title 47, each recipient of a so-called "junk fax" could collect $500 in damages from the offending company.

The law was amended with the passing of the Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005. Under this new law, unsolicited faxes can be sent to businesses with which the client has an "established business relationship" or EBR [source: Federal Communications Commission].


An EBR is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as "a prior or existing relationship formed by a voluntary two-way communication between a person or entity and a business or residential subscriber with or without an exchange of consideration [payment], on the basis of an inquiry, application, purchase or transaction by the business or residential subscriber regarding products or services offered by such person or entity, which relationship has not been previously terminated by either party" [source: Federal Communications Commission].

That's a fancy way of saying that it doesn't take much to establish a business relationship. No money has to change hands. Simply by inquiring about a product at a Web site or applying to a job is enough to establish a relationship between an individual and a company.

Likewise, the FCC establishes some ground rules for obtaining fax numbers from companies and individuals with whom you have an EBR:

  • You can get it from the company or individual directly
  • Look it up on their Web site
  • Obtain it through third-party lists, as long as it's clear that the company or individual consented to be on the list

[source: Federal Communications Commission]

Another rule established by the Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005 is that all unsolicited fax advertisements must include clear instructions for opting out of all future broadcast faxes from that company. The opt-out process must be free (by toll-free phone number, toll-free fax or Web site) and must be listed on the first page of the fax. To opt out, all a consumer has to do is provide his fax number to the company directly by any of the methods listed above [source: Federal Communications Commission].

The broadcast fax industry has been hit hard by several multi-million-dollar lawsuits. This has scared many companies away from using broadcast fax, causing a steep decline in broadcast fax spending over the past couple of years.

In 2005, companies spent $240 million on broadcast fax worldwide. In 2006, that number was down 16.7 percent to $200 million. By 2010, experts predict that broadcast fax spending will be down to $110 million.

For more information about broadcast fax and related topics, check out the links on the next page.