CommLawBlog

FCC Gives Cell Phones a Boost

New devices should help to eliminate “dead spots” with little risk of interference.

Despite the promise of ubiquitous cell phone coverage, we are all too familiar with the dreaded phenomenon of dead spots. Historically, cell users frustrated by that phenomenon often fought back by using signal boosters that receive and re-transmit cell phone signals to improve coverage. Recognizing the obvious desirability of boosters, but concerned about their potential for interference, the FCC has now adopted a new comprehensive regulatory approach to boosters. As a result, we can look for a new breed of consumer signal boosters hitting the market soon, probably by year’s end.

This should come as good news for consumers . . . unless you rely upon poor signal coverage as an excuse to avoid calls from your mother (shame!), have an aversion to compulsive cell-phone talkers (like some of us here), or have already purchased an existing device that’s not compliant with the FCC’s rules (in which case you may need to upgrade).

Previously, the FCC did not specifically prohibit boosters, but its rules were a bit fuzzy. For years various groups expressed concern that “unauthorized” boosters were causing harmful interference to wireless networks. To address those concerns, the FCC initiated a formal rulemaking to look into the issue in 2011. The result: two new categories of boosters, subject to different requirements.

“Consumer Signal Boosters” are “out-of-the-box” devices for personal use by individuals to improve cell coverage in a limited area, like a house, a car, an RV, a boat, etc.  “Industrial Signal Boosters” are all others.  Deployed by wireless providers, they serve larger areas, like campuses, hospitals, tunnels, airports, office buildings, etc. Since such industrial boosters aren’t significantly affected by FCC’s latest action, we’ll focus here on the new category of Consumer Signal Boosters. (Also unaffected by the new rules are “femtocells,” which connect to the network though broadband Internet access rather than licensed cell frequencies.)

Ready to get boosted?

Sorry, but you’ll need to wait a little longer for booster manufacturers to bring their products into compliance with a new “Network Protection Standard” designed to ensure that all new devices have appropriate safeguards.  Under that Standard, all Consumer Signal Boosters must:

  1. comply with existing technical parameters for the applicable spectrum band of operation;
  2. automatically self-monitor certain operations and shut down if not in compliance;
  3. automatically detect and mitigate oscillations (caused when the device picks up its own signal too strongly, like the feedback in a public address system);
  4. power down or shut down automatically when a device is not needed, as when the device approaches the base station with which it is communicating;
  5. be designed so that these features cannot be easily defeated; and
  6. incorporate interference avoidance in systems that use unlicensed frequencies internally.

The FCC does not want buttons, knobs or switches which allow for these features to be deactivated.  (Understandable, as we ourselves can’t resist pressing buttons on electronic devices just to see what they will do.)

The new rules prescribe two alternative sets of technical specifications that comply with the Network Protection Standard.  But equipment manufacturers are not obliged to adhere to either, if they can demonstrate compliance some other way.

The FCC does not anticipate compliant Consumer Signal Boosters becoming available until late 2013. By March 1, 2014, all boosters marketed in the U.S. must comply with the new standards.

As for consumers, the “out-of-the-box” ease of use will be complicated by some additional paperwork requirements.

Once you get your hands on a compliant Consumer Signal Booster, you will have to give your cell phone provider certain registration information and get the provider’s permission before putting the booster to use. In practice, getting the provider’s permission should be a non-issue for most: all of the major providers (Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile), plus many smaller providers, have agreed to grant blanket approval for Consumer Signal Boosters that meet the Network Protection Standard.  You would need to request express permission only from smaller providers that have not yet signed on.

The registration information you’ll have to provide will include, as a minimum, the booster’s: (a) owner (and, if different, its operator); (b) make; (c) model; (d) serial number; (e) location; and (f) date of initial operation. The aim is to help authorities track down devices that cause interference problems. Providers will have to set up a free registration process. Also, providers will have to announce (at least annually for the first two years) whether or not they have consented to the use of each FCC-certified model.

But let’s suppose you’re one of those early adopters who hopped onto the booster bandwagon before now. How do the new rules affect your pre-Network Protection Standard booster?

Good news: the FCC does not prohibit consumers from continuing to use such legacy devices, even if those don’t comply with the Network Protection Standard. BUT a consumer will need express permission from the wireless provider to use these “legacy” devices. The provider is not obligated to give consent (especially if the old school booster is likely to cause harmful interference) and the consent can be withdrawn at any time.

Consumer note: Non-compliant boosters cannot be marketed in the U.S. after March 1, 2014.

Continued operation of any Consumer Signal Booster, whether legacy or new, is contingent on the device not causing harmful interference. If a service provider or the FCC tells you to turn off your device because of interference issues, you must do so, or face potential penalties.

With respect to penalties, in a separate statement Commission Pai acknowledged that consumers using legacy boosters might violate the new requirements simply out of ignorance:

[W]e cannot expect that every American who currently uses a booster will know that he must register that booster and obtain his carrier’s consent. Indeed, I very much doubt that most individuals will learn about these requirements in the foreseeable future. For some reason unbeknownst to me, most Americans just don’t watch FCC open meetings or read FCC orders.

[Blogmeister’s note to Commissioner Pai: Many Americans may not watch your meetings or read your orders because we here at CommLawBlog take care of some of that heavy lifting for them.

At Pai’s suggestion, the Commission has directed the Enforcement Bureau to give consumers who are violating the rule (whether by using unregistered devices or by failing to obtain consent from their providers) the chance to avoid a fine by shutting the device off. That’s a one-shot-only chance, though: a consumer who has previously been warned by the Bureau and who continues in violation can expect a fine.  

Looking for more information? The FCC has set up a handy signal booster website that provides some background and links to related materials.

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