The term non-commercial educational (NCE) applies to a radio station or TV station that does not accept on-air advertisements (TV ads or radio ads), as defined in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). NCE stations do not pay broadcast license fees for their non-profit uses of the radio spectrum. Stations which are almost always operated as NCE include public broadcasting, community radio, and college radio, as well as many religious broadcasting stations.
On the FM broadcast band, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has reserved the lowest 20 channels, 201~220 (88.1~91.9 MHz) for NCE stations only. This is known as the reserved band. It also includes channel 200 (87.9 MHz), but only for class D NCE stations. This is only for "full-service" stations forced to move by a full-power station (KSFH being the only one as of 2008 ), however one broadcast translator (K200AA, a CSN International translator parented to KAWZ) has been allowed to use this channel anyway.
On the TV band, individual channels are reserved, such that there is at least one in every area, and almost always two or three in each metropolitan area. This is also the case for FM along international boundary zones, within 320 kilometers (just under 200 miles) of the Mexico-United States border and the Canada-United States border. This is because many of the reserved-band channels are used by stations in the other country, such as with broadcasting in the San Diego/Tijuana metropolitan area. Additionally, neither the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission nor the Federal Telecommunications Institute have such a reserved band in Canada or Mexico, respectively. (In Mexico, individual stations belonging to state and federal governments, educational institutions, and non-profit groups are licensed under permits or permisos, which are non-commercial, non-profit licenses that do not permit advertising.)
NCE stations may also operate on a non-reserved channel. However this was rare in the United States due to the high cost of buying a commercial broadcasting station, and because for years the FCC failed to maintain a process that would ensure that non-commercial applicants would have a chance against those who could afford to bid at spectrum auctions. Two such stations are WGPB FM in Rome, Georgia and WNGH-FM in Chatsworth, Georgia, former commercial stations purchased in 2007 and 2008 and operated by Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB), serving the mountains northwest of Atlanta which previously had no GPB radio service. This is also rare in Mexico, though XEIMT-TV, a cultural channel in Mexico City, and XEWH-TV, the main station of the state network of Sonora, operate under commercial concessions and not permits. A number of new low power FM (LPFM) NCE stations operating in the non-reserved part of the spectrum have been licensed by the FCC since the Local Community Radio Act was enacted in 2010.
The FCC defines several different activities as being commercial in nature. Sponsorship of NCE stations is called underwriting, and stations may make announcements of these grants on-air. However, they may not accept money for such mentions, only goods and services, unless the sponsor itself is a non-profit, such as a charitable organization or public college. Money can be accepted if there is no on-air mention of the sponsor. NCE stations may also not mention prices or qualities of commercial products or services in any situation which would be construed as promoting or endorsing any company, regardless of whether it sponsors the station.
Underwriting spots are brief and to-the-point, as they must not be disruptive to programming. Additionally, underwriting spots on public TV are at the beginning or end of the TV show rather than in the middle, as they have increasingly become on commercial stations.
Retransmission consent has often been chosen over must-carry by the major commercial television networks. Under the present rules, a new agreement is negotiated every three years, and stations must choose must-carry or retransmission consent for each cable system they wish their signal to be carried on. Non-commercial stations (such as local PBS stations) may not seek retransmission consent and may only invoke must-carry status.
Like commercial stations, NCE stations are allowed to lease subcarriers in exchange for money, essentially making the station a common carrier. This may be for a commercial audio, video, or data service, or a non-commercial one like a radio reading service for the blind.
NCE stations broadcasting in digital TV or HD Radio may lease part of their bandwidth (actually bitrate) in a similar manner, however, the commercial use is limited. The main program must always be non-commercial, and must not have its quality diminished excessively by increased lossy compression done in order to fit the auxiliary service within the allowable bit rate. NCE digital television (DTV) stations do not pay the FCC a percentage of their revenue from these leases as commercial DTV stations do. No such datacasting fee is levied on any analog or FM/AM station, whether commercial or NCE.