FCC Proposes to Overhaul Equipment Certification Procedure

Changes would require accreditation of test labs, expand role for TCBs.

This item will interest only a small fraction of our audience – but it will interest those people a great deal. If you test products for FCC compliance, or are responsible for having products tested, keep reading. Otherwise, you might enjoy this site instead.

The FCC’s extensive technical rules try to ensure, among other goals, that devices emitting radio-frequency energy do not cause interference to one another. The FCC enforces these rules through a set of “equipment authorization” procedures designed to confirm compliance before a covered device can be imported into or marketed in the United States. For the past quarter-century, the FCC has periodically streamlined the procedures and handed off authority to commercial providers. A new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking continues that trend.

The proposed changes would affect the “certification” procedure required for most mobile, portable, and unlicensed transmitters, LPFM transmitters, and a few other devices. As things stand today, a manufacturer or importer can have its product tested for compliance at any lab, subject only to the requirement that the lab have listed its facilities with the FCC. Some large companies maintain their own labs; most others rely on the hundreds of commercial labs worldwide. Compliance test results, along with photographs and specified technical information, go either to the FCC or to an FCC-authorized Telecommunications Certification Body (TCB). If all is in order, the FCC issues a certification, or the TCB does so on the FCC’s behalf.

Most companies prefer to work through a TCB, which usually gets the certification out faster. In fact, TCBs handle about 98 percent of all certifications. But certain categories of equipment, those on the so-called “TCB exclusion list,” must be certified by the FCC itself. These include certain Wi-Fi-type equipment required to detect and avoid airport weather radars, ultra-wideband and wideband devices, some 3650-3700 MHz transmitters, some transmitters intended for implantation in the body, and more. Other equipment categories are subject to a permit-but-ask (PBA) procedure under which TCBs are permitted to handle the certification, but must consult with the FCC while doing so.

The FCC now proposes the following changes:

  • All labs testing for FCC certification would have to be accredited pursuant to specified third-party standards.
  • Separately, test sites would have to be “validated” pursuant to (different) third-party standards.
  • The FCC would no longer certify any devices, all of which would have to go through a TCB.
  • The exclusion list would be dropped; devices now on the exclusion list (and the PBA list) would be certified by a TCB under a modified PBA procedure.
  • A TCB could dismiss a non-compliant application (after which the applicant could refile), or could recommend that the FCC deny it (which would terminate the application).

In addition, the FCC proposes rule changes that would:

  • modify the procedural interactions among an applicant, its TCB, and the FCC;
  • clarify TCB responsibilities for post-certification surveillance;
  • clarify procedures for an entity becoming, and remaining, a TCB;
  • modify sanctions in cases where the FCC has doubts about a TCB’s performance; and
  • implement minor changes to the measurement procedures for unlicensed devices.

Caution: This is only a rough outline. Test labs, TCBs, and companies that certify equipment, particularly unlicensed devices under Part 15, should consult the NPRM.

Comments and reply comments will be due 45 days and 75 days, respectively, after publication in the Federal Register. Watch this space for updates.

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Mike Violette - February 20, 2013 10:30 AM

Section III B, addressing the accreditation of testing laboratories is specifically directed at Chinese labs, which funnel a large number of certifications through the FCC's TCB system. Currently, TCBs are allowed (obligated) to accept data from 2.948-listed labs regardless of their location.

This statement: "We propose to include accredited laboratories outside the United States on the list only if we recognize their accreditation under the terms of an MRA or other agreement" is a direct attempt to get China to sign an MRA, either under the APEC TEL structure or through a bi-lateral arrangement of some type.

Currently, to gain the "CCC" mark (required to sell on the domestic Chinese market), a manufacturer has to go to a state-owned laboratory, provide all manner of information about their device (schematics, technical info, IP, etc.). Given that the Intellectual Property protections in China are, in a word, "leaky", the existing regimen has a chilling effect on foreign manufacturers seeking access to the Chinese domestic market.

A Chinese manufacturer, on the other hand, has many local domestic choices of laboratories for testing for and gaining certification for FCC requirements. This disparity disadvantages US manufacturers.

The effect of this, if implemented, has a high-level impact on trade and market access. For many years, US interests, through the USGov, Industry and Trade Associations have tried to open the Conformity Assessment regime in China to outside parties.

Requiring an MRA and getting China to be more flexible in their administration of the CCC mark will improve the competitiveness for US products and generally enhance bilateral trade.

The FCC can and should adopt this measure as a way to introduce fairness, using what leverage it may have to flatten trade barriers for US manufacturers.

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