Update: Effective Date, Comment Deadlines Set in Cell Phone Signal Booster Proceeding

Several weeks ago we reported on the FCC’s order disposing of several petitions for reconsideration that had been filed with respect to its 2013 decision to adopt a new regulatory approach to the use of cell phone signal boosters. In its most recent order the Commission adopted a couple of tweaks to its rules and proposed some further tweaks. All of those actions have now made it into the Federal Register. As a result, we now know when all but one of the newly-revised rules will take effect, and we also know the deadlines for commenting on the proposed additional tweaks.

According to one notice, all the revisions adopted by the Commission last month will take effect on
December 29, 2014 except for Section 20.21(f)(1)(iv)(A)(2), which, because it’s an “information collection”, must first be run past the Office of Management and Budget thanks to the Paperwork Reduction Act.

And according to a separate notice, comments on the newly-proposed tweaks are due by December 29, 2014 and replies are due by January 20, 2015.

FCC Further Tweaks Signal Booster Rules

Some rules relaxed while measures added to prevent interference to wireless networks 

Back in early 2013, the FCC took steps to help consumers deal with the dreaded cell phone phenomenon of dead spots by allowing the use of private signal boosters. (Readers should recall that boosters receive and re-transmit cell phone signals to improve coverage in their immediate vicinity.) And now, underscoring its interest in encouraging such devices, the Commission has tweaked its rules. But be forewarned, the tweaks are highly technical and unless you’re deeply involved in the manufacturing side of the booster universe, you shouldn’t expect to notice any dramatic changes.

To recap, there are two classes of approved boosters, Consumer and Industrial. Consumer boosters, in turn, come in two flavors, Wideband Consumer Boosters (designed to boost signals of more than one cell provider) and Provider-Specific Consumer Signal Boosters (designed to boost the signals of just a single cell provider). All Consumer Boosters are subject to “Network Protection Standards” (NPS), although those standards differ somewhat between the two different types of Consumer Boosters.

Among the NPS imposed on manufacturers of Wideband Consumer Boosters was a testing requirement – involving downlink noise limits, if you really must know – which proved problematic for manufacturers. (As it turned out, neither the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology nor most Telecommunications Certifying Bodies had the filtering equipment necessary to measure the downlink noise as required, which obviously complicated the testing process.)

So several manufacturers, noting that the downward noise testing element was not included in the NPS as a means of protecting against interference, suggested that it could be tossed. They also suggested that bidirectional capability, which was what the downward noise limit test was designed to help achieve and confirm, could be addressed in other ways (for example, by adding downlink gain limits to the Transmit Power Off Mode requirement – we warned you that the tweaks are highly technical, didn’t we?).

The FCC agreed. Signal booster makers can thank Wilson Electronics, V-COMM and Wireless Extenders for getting the ball rolling on this front.

The Commission also added some requirements for mobile Provider-Specific Consumer Signal Boosters to provide additional protection against interference to wireless networks. In particular, mobile Provider-Specific boosters now:

  1. are subject to the stronger noise limits set for Wideband Consumer Boosters;
  2. must meet the stronger gain limits for Wideband Consumer Boosters if directly connected or using direct contact coupling; and
  3. may not exceed a maximum booster gain of 58 dB (for frequencies below 1 GHz) and 65 dB (for frequencies above 1 GHz) if they use an inside antenna and have both automatic gain adjustment based on isolation measurements between booster donor and server antenna and automatic feedback cancellation.

(We did mention that there would be some technical stuff going on here, didn’t we? But wait – there’s more!)

The Commission also will apply the “antenna kitting rule” to all Provider-Specific Consumer Signal Boosters. Originally, that rule was applicable to all Wideband units but only mobile Provider-Specific units; from here on, it will apply to all consumer boosters, mobile and fixed. (For those new to this: “Antenna Kitting” is a requirement that manufacturers sell antennas, cables and any other type of “coupling device” along with the booster, to control for interference.)

And, in what we view as borderline labeling overkill, all fixed consumer boosters – Provider-Specific and Wideband – must now include the emphatic direction that “[t]his device may ONLY be operated in a fixed location for in-building use”. And that incantation (intended to prevent, or at least discourage, interference to wireless networks) has got to be invoked not once, not twice, not thrice, but at least four (count ‘em, four) separate times: in on-line, point-of-sale marketing; in any manual or installation instructions; on the packaging; and on a label affixed to the booster itself. 

In addition to all these revisions, the Commission has requested comments on whether to remove the “personal use” restriction in place for Provider-Specific Signal Boosters. Since consumers using those boosters are already required to obtain consent from carriers to operate on their frequencies, the Commission figures that the additional “personal use” provision is redundant. Deadlines for comments on this proposal will be set when the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking appears in the Federal Register, which hasn’t yet happened. We’ll keep you informed.

Update: Cell Signal Booster Marketing Deadline Extended

About a year ago we reported on the adoption of a new set of rules governing the use of cell phone boosters. In passing, we noted that all boosters marketed in the U.S. must comply with the new standards by March 1, 2014.

Not so fast.

Turns out that it was a bit trickier than expected to develop the test procedures necessary to ensure compliance. The task force designing those test procedures included members of the TCB Council, test labs, equipment manufacturers and representatives of the wireless industry. Despite that fact – or who knows, maybe because of it – the task force’s in-depth consideration of the process “revealed significant technical and policy issues”. The upshot: the test procedures weren’t finalized and published until last month. And without final test procedures, manufacturers weren’t in a position to finalize and submit applications to get their gear certified.

Now that the test procedures – which the FCC assures us are “more robust” and “comprehensive” – are in place, manufacturers have started to run their equipment through the process. But that takes time. As a result, the Commission has agreed to extend for 60 days, to and including April 30, 2014, the deadline by which all Consumer Signal Boosters marketed, distributed or sold in the United States must comply with Section 20.21 of the Commission’s rules. In the meantime, the restrictions on sale and marketing (set out in Section 20.21(g)) are being waived until April 30 as well.

Update: Last of the New Cell Phone Booster Rules Now in Effect

When last we reported on the FCC’s comprehensive new approach to the regulation of cell phone boosters, one last piece of red tape had to be snipped before the new rules would take effect. That is, the Office of Management and Budget still had to rubberstamp a number of the new rule sections before they could take effect, thanks to the ironically-named Paperwork Reduction Act. (If you’re keeping score, the sections in question are Sections 1.1307(b)(1); 20.3; 20.21(a)(2); 20.21(a)(5); 20.21(e)(2); 20.21(e)(8)(i)(G); 20.21(e)(9)(i)(H); 20.21(f); 20.21(h); 22.9; 24.9; 27.9; 90.203(q); 90.219(b)(1)(i); 90.219(d)(5); and 90.219(e)(5).)

Good news! According to a notice in the Federal Register, OMB has given all those sections the big Thumbs Up, so they have all become effective as of September 11, 2013. (Note, however, that as the Commission made clear in its Report and Order last February, compliance with the rules will not be required of all consumer and industrial signal boosters sold and marketed in the U.S. until March 1, 2014).

Update: Effective Date of New Cell Phone Booster Rules Announced

Last February we reported on the FCC’s adoption of a new comprehensive regulatory approach to cell phone boosters. The Report and Order setting out that approach has now made it into the Federal Register. As a result, many – but not all – of the new rules will take effect as of May 13, 2013. Which of the amended rules won’t kick in then? Why, those would be Sections 1.1307(b)(1); 20.3; 20.21(a)(2); 20.21(a)(5); 20.21(e)(2); 20.21(e)(8)(i)(G); 20.21(e)(9)(i)(H); 20.21(f); 20.21(h); 22.9; 24.9; 27.9; 90.203(q); 90.219(b)(1)(i); 90.219(d)(5); and 90.219(e)(5). Those all involve “information collections” and, thus, must first be blessed by the Office of Management and Budget thanks to the hilariously-named Paperwork Reduction Act. Check back here for further updates on that front.

Please keep in mind the crucial distinction between cell phone boosters (at issue here) and cell phone jammers. The latter remain illegal.

Update: FCC Releases "Consumer Guide" on Cell Phone Signal Boosters

The FCC tells you what you need to know, for now . . .

Did you read our earlier post on new requirements for cell phone signal boosters? If not, you’re probably a member of Commissioner Pai’s signal-booster-ignoramus-club. (Check out his separate statement in which he opined that, “[i]ndeed, I very much doubt that most individuals will learn about these requirements [relative to cell phone boosters] in the foreseeable future.”) Presumably with you in mind, the FCC has now released a Consumer Guide on what you need to know if you currently own a signal booster.

To aid in the effort to educate the American public, we are passing this information on to you, our valued readership. So if you own a signal booster or are thinking of getting one, take a look at the Guide.

Signal booster manufacturers and cell phone service providers (including resellers) should also take a look at our original post because the new requirements will affect you as well.

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.

Update: Comment Deadlines Set In Wireless Signal Booster Rulemaking

A couple of weeks ago we reported on an Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing to allow consumers to purchase and use boosters to improve their wireless reception.  The NPRM has now been published in the Federal Register, which sets the deadlines for comments on the proposals. Comments are due on June 24, 2011, and reply comments on July 25, 2011.

FCC Proposes To Give Cell Phones A Boost

Unlicensed boosters could improve reception but could also increase interference

When you’re trying to make a cell phone call, have you ever been thwarted by those pesky laws of physics? You know, those ones that cause signals to fade at long distances from base stations or impede signals in tunnels, buildings or dense foliage. If so, the FCC thinks it may have an answer to your problems – wireless consumer signal boosters. While signal boosters have been an option for certain FCC wireless licensees for a while, the FCC recently issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) kicking off a proceeding designed to allow individual consumers to purchase and use such boosters. 

The NPRM was released both in response to a number of petitions filed by private parties and as part of the Commission’s overarching effort to deploy wireless and broadband services. In it, the Commission recognizes not only the potential value in signal boosters, but also the significant potential for interference created by poorly designed or installed boosters. To attempt to ensure that boosters are deployed effectively and safely, the Commission proposes to impose requirements on the manufacture and marketing of boosters themselves, rather than adopting a licensing regime for their use. The NPRM seeks comment generally on this approach, as well as on a number of more discrete issues.

The type of wireless signal booster contemplated by the NPRM is essentially a system consisting of an inside antenna paired with an amplifier and an outside antenna. The inside antenna communicates with the user’s cell phone or other wireless device and the outside antenna with a wireless service provider’s base station, with the amplifier boosting the signal to improve the connection.  Such boosters could be designed for either fixed use, such as in a building or tunnel, or mobile use, such as in a car. The NPRM notes that such devices would be particularly useful in rural areas where wireless coverage gaps exist, and in other difficult-to-serve indoor areas. Signal boosters could also provide public safety benefits by allowing users to connect to 911 and emergency services where their wireless signals would otherwise be blocked (e.g., tunnels, garages, inside buildings). 

While the benefit of wireless signal boosters seems clear, their use also creates a number of potential problems. The FCC identified five primary issues in the NPRM, four of them involving different types of interference. Those four types of interference are:

  • “Near-far” interference. This type of interference arises when a signal booster is closer to a base station on an adjacent channel than to the base station with which it is attempting to communicate. In some applications, particular mobile, an improperly designed booster may amplify and interfere with communications on that adjacent channel.
  • Oscillation. This arises when the booster’s signal level remains elevated as it approaches the base station with which it is communicating, creating an effect similar to that of moving a microphone too close to a speaker.
  • Base station overload. This affects base stations that use dynamic power control to maximize performance by adjusting the power of both the base station and the handsets with which they are communicating. Boosters which are not dynamically controlled by the base station may continue to provide amplification when it is not necessary, interfering with the base station’s efficient operation and potentially causing an overload.
  • 800 MHz spectrum interference. This arises in the 800 MHZ spectrum band, where channels used commercially, primarily by Sprint Nextel, are interleaved with public safety channels. Unless there is proper coordination between the two, use of a wideband signal booster by either type of user may overload base stations operating on the adjacent channels, causing dropped calls and reduced network capacity. 

The fifth booster-related problem identified in the NPRM is not an interference problem, but a distortion of network-based E- 911 systems. These systems determine the location of handsets used to call 911 by measuring the time it takes for the handsets signal to reach units installed at the operators’ base stations. If the handsets signals are amplified by a signal booster, this may lead to inaccurate location estimates. 

The Commission in the NPRM discusses some “real-world” examples of these problems identified by Verizon, AT&T, and other operators, noting that the interference issues can have wide-ranging effects, sometimes entirely disabling a base station. According to the NPRM, operators claim that it is often extremely difficult to identify a specific signal booster as the source of these problems, particularly where the signal booster may be used in a mobile setting. 

Despite these issues, the Commission believes that there is a genuine need for “well-designed” signal boosters. It therefore proposes a regulatory regime which will allow for their use while avoiding the various harms they may cause. The Commission’s proposal is to regulate consumer signal boosters through a “license by rule” regime. Under such a regime, no individual licenses are issued for consumer signal boosters; rather, rules are adopted setting the technical parameters such boosters must satisfy before being marketed or sold. The NPRM generally seeks comment on whether this type of regulation is appropriate for signal boosters. Assuming this is the appropriate means by which to regulate boosters, the NPRM provides the broad outlines of its proposed technical requirements, seeking further comment on the appropriateness of these requirements. 

First, the NPRM proposes requiring all signal boosters operated in a given band to satisfy the existing technical requirements (e.g., power, out-of-band emissions) for mobile units (not base stations) operating in that band. The NPRM also proposes requiring signal boosters to be designed to “self-monitor” to ensure their compliance with these rules and to automatically shut down if they detect any non-compliance. Similarly, boosters would be required to automatically shut-down if they were to detect any feedback or oscillation. The NPRM requests comment on:  the effectiveness of such a requirement; the appropriate specific triggers for shut-down; and whether a booster’s power should be measured by effective radiated power (ERP) or transmitter output power.

The NPRM proposes to ensure compliance with radiofrequency (RF) exposure limits through existing procedures, requiring all applications for equipment authorization for signal boosters to demonstrate compliance with the RF exposure limits applicable to the device’s intended use. As with existing devices, the NPRM proposes requiring labeling and clear instructions for end users regarding appropriate use and installation of signal boosters. 

In addition to labeling related to potential RF exposure, the NPRM proposes requiring labeling regarding the responsibility of the signal booster owner and installer to ensure that the booster does not cause interference and, for fixed boosters, to coordinate the booster’s installation and use with the appropriate local wireless carrier. The NPRM proposes that for fixed boosters, this label include reference to an FCC website where licensee information will be available (www.fcc.gov/signalboosters – as of this writing, this site is not active). 

The NPRM further proposes requiring the operator of any signal booster to immediately cease operations if the booster is causing harmful interference. The NPRM also seeks comment on whether and how signal boosters should be regulated to prevent interference between and among boosters themselves. 

In addition to the above proposals, which would apply to all signal boosters, the NPRM proposes additional requirements that would apply only to fixed or mobile boosters. The NPRM would require that all fixed signal boosters coordinate frequency selection and power levels with local wireless carriers before use; it seeks comments on what specific coordination procedures should be required. The NPRM specifically asks how, under any coordination procedure, to ensure that the wireless carrier responds to any coordination requests in a timely manner. 

The Commission recognizes that for mobile signal boosters, the type of advance coordination appropriate for fixed boosters may be impossible. Rather than requiring such coordination, the NRPM proposes requiring mobile boosters to automatically reduce power as they approach the base station with which they are communicating; it also seeks further comment on how to address interference concerns, particularly the “near-far” interference issue identified above. 

The Commission also generally requests comment on any other issues related to signal boosters, in particular seeking input on whether, and if so how, it should require remote shut-off capability, location detection features, and activation of boosters by wireless carriers before use. Recognizing that signal boosters are already in use in many areas, the Commission requests comment on how to treat these existing boosters, suggesting that it may allow their use to continue, at least for some period of time, although it might require that they be registered. 

The Commission also notes that many wireless providers have expressed concerns that interfering boosters are often difficult to locate. Accordingly, the NRPM proposes setting up a national clearinghouse for registration of boosters and suggests including features in boosters that would prevent them from operating unless they were first registered in this clearinghouse.

Finally, the NPRM proposes some additional requirements that would apply only to non-consumer signal boosters operated by wireless licensees under Part 90 of the Commission’s Rules. Under Part 90, certain signal boosters have been allowed since 1996, generally for internal, non-public communications. The NPRM generally proposes to retain the existing rules for such Part 90 boosters, with certain modifications to prevent interference. Although narrower in application than the changes proposed in the rest of the NPRM, any parties who currently operate Part 90 boosters should review these proposals. 

Comments will be due to the FCC 45 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 30 days later. Check back here for updates on that front.