Bulbs Behind Bars II: FCC Goes After Hair Salon Lighting Fixture

Tests showed fluorescents causing interference to AT&T 4G service.

Suppose you have a non-FCC-related business – a hair salon, let’s say. And suppose it uses fluorescent lights. You wouldn’t think that that alone makes the business subject to FCC jurisdiction.

Ronald Bethany probably didn’t think so. He runs the Perfect Cuts Salon in San Antonio, Texas, in half of a tiny strip-mall building. Hairdressing does not come among the FCC’s stated responsibilities.

But radio interference does. The salon’s fluorescent lights emitted a stray radio signal at 705 MHz, part of a band licensed to AT&T for the delivery of 4G service to smartphones and tablets. This particular frequency is used for transmissions from a mobile device to a cell tower, such as the cell tower that rises up directly behind the Perfect Cuts Salon.

When AT&T received interference, it probably suspected the strip mall, as this kind of interference usually does not travel far. An AT&T staffer stopped by and, presumably with Mr. Bethany’s consent, turned the salon lights off and on. Sure enough, the interference went off and on at the same time. Mr. Bethany contacted General Electric, which made the lights; GE offered to replace them. So far, so good.

But Mr. Bethany turned down GE’s offer. He wanted cash instead so he could handle the replacement himself. GE refused. AT&T, still getting interference, went to the FCC, which sent an agent to the salon. Although this time Mr. Bethany did not permit the on/off test, the agent used direction-finding equipment to confirm that the lights were causing the problem. The agent told Mr. Bethany he had to fix them. Mr. Bethany refused, unless someone paid him.

Now the FCC has upped the ante. It sent Mr. Bethany an official citation that requires him to fix the lights or face possible financial penalties. And, yes, the FCC can do that.

Radio interference from non-radio devices has been popping up lately. We saw another lighting-fixture case just a few months ago that also involved 4G frequencies, and before that, a problem with a well pump. There are no technical standards for these kinds of devices, as regards radio interference. In practice, though, in the aggregate, they probably cause more trouble than do the closely-regulated transmitters and digital devices.

But the interference is simple to fix. If your phone or tablet is not responding properly, you can always try turning off the lights.

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Comments (6) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Stefan Brunner - October 30, 2013 5:12 PM

Well, it comes down to properly functioning or designed equipment. I am not sure whether there are government standard for pumps or lighting fixtures, but there are certainly best practice design standards.

At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the owner. And that for good reason: if any device would pollute the airwaves, we could not make much use out of our wireless world.

Said that, it is usually easy and cheap to avoid during manufacturing. A lighting fixture which emits RFI in all likelihood is also close to failing, which could even result in a fire.

Duke & Banner - November 5, 2013 3:14 AM

Here's what I wanna know: Why ain't the FCC going after GE? They're the ones who designed this mess, and probably cut corners for maximum profits while manufacturing it in China.

Tom Taggart - November 5, 2013 1:48 PM

Being discussion about this "interference" issue elsewhere.

Seems like the new LTE cellular devices demand unrealistically low RF noise levels to function. There was the recent case of an FM station issue an NOV where the 10th harmonic was some 100 db below the main carrier. FCC standards have been 80 db.

Of course the FCC responds instantly to the cell industry. Let an AM station complain about noisy power polls--all you will hear is the sound of crickets!

Steve Bauer - January 23, 2014 9:03 PM

I'm surprised the FCC did anything after looking at this link. It sounded like the FCC was willing to let us suffer from Radio Frequency Pollution in order that they could save us from using to much energy.

Joe Leikhim - February 22, 2014 3:35 PM

I am curious as to Mr. Bethany's reluctance to permit GE to replace the fixtures. Perhaps their terms were inflexible and potentially affected his ongoing business concerns. This would be equally important to a small business as it would be to AT&T.

There are two FCC classifications for fluorescent light fixtures. The more restrictive is for lighting fixtures installed in residential buildings where it is presumed radio and TV's would be sensitive to interference. The least restrictive is for commercial and industrial installations where it is presumed that motors and other equipment (hair dryers maybe) will predominate the noise floor. In shopping for new fluorescent fixtures for my house, I find that the energy saving T-5 fixtures have a high frequency ballast and often are commercial rated not residential, though being sold at home improvement stores.

Perhaps FCC should spend some time at retailers inspecting the junk being sold.

Melda - October 8, 2014 4:24 PM

"It comes down to properly designed equipment"...

No, it doesn't.

Part 47 permits equipment that emits a certain amount of radiation in an "industrial" setting - AS LONG AS IT DOESN'T CAUSE HARMFUL INTERFERENCE.

If the interference is deemed harmful, THE USER has to fix it or shut it off, even if the equipment meets emission limit specs!

The same product installed in a metal building, further away from a cell site, with better attention to wiring and shielding, might have passed muster. Or might not.

The use of "Class A" limits needs to be restricted. The old standards aren't good enough anymore.

FCC let this happen because GE said that the "free market" will decide. Instead, AT&T's lawyers will make the FCC enforce the de facto standard that use of CLASS A lighting product is restricted wherever 4G service is present.

The situation is SIMPLE: What constitutes "HARMFUL interference" is a technical hurdle that keeps ratcheting tighter due to ubiquitous need for RF mobile data.

We're drowning in an RF stew of our own making.

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