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.

E911 Update: Third Further NPRM Comment Deadlines Set

Earlier this month we reported on the FCC’s Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in its effort to improve E911 location capabilities. The NPRM has now made it into the Federal Register, as a result of which we now know the comment deadlines. Comments in response to the NPRM may be filed by May 12, 2014 and replies by June 11.

In Depth and On Time: FCC Contemplates Indoor E911 Location Information With Added Dimensions

Commission looks to move CMRS location requirements indoors, expand them from 2-D to 4-D.

Since 2010 the FCC has been insisting on greater accuracy in the ability of wireless providers to pinpoint the location of wireless phones for E911 purposes. The automatic location information (ALI) rules currently in place require that carriers be able to provide Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) the location of an E911 caller to within 50 to 300 meters (depending on the technology used). But that requirement applies only to calls originating outdoors, and it mandates provision of only horizontal locations determined by geographic coordinates (i.e., latitude and longitude).

Nowadays, however, wireless phones are the source of most 911 calls, and the “great majority” of wireless calls originate indoors – hence the need for improved indoor E911 location capability.

Fortunately, test bed results and industry input confirm that indoor location technologies have improved considerably, so much so that they are expected to “deliver 50-meter location accuracy for many indoor environments with a high degree of reliability” in the near term. With its Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) the FCC is now looking to ensure that the wireless-dependent public benefits from that capability.

But locating E911 callers inside buildings poses an additional question: how are first responders supposed to find the caller-in-distress when the geographic coordinates identified by the carrier turn out to be the site of a multi-story building?

No problem. The various fancy gadgets that can be built into smartphones include barometric sensors. According to a source cited by the FCC, as of 2013 all of Samsung’s “flagship smartphone models” had such sensors on board, as did a couple of Sony models. Apple was expected to join the club in 2014. Because (a) barometers measure air pressure and (b) air pressure varies according to elevation, such sensors can provide vertical location information (the “z-axis”) to supplement the horizontal (“x-axis” and “y-axis”) information already available.

Given all these considerations, the FCC is now proposing to require CMRS operators to hone their indoor E911 location accuracy accordingly. In particular, CMRS operators would have to:

  • Ÿprovide horizontal location (x- and y-axis) information within 50 meters of the caller for 67% of 911 calls placed from indoor environments within two years of the effective date of adoption of rules, and for 80% of indoor calls within five years.
  • provide vertical location (z-axis) information within three meters of the caller for 67% of indoor 911 calls within three years of the adoption of rules, and for 80% of calls within five years. The FCC chose the three-meter spec because the average floor-height in multi-story buildings is between 3.1-3.9 meters (depending on the type of building). Thus, the three-meter spec proposed by the Commission should permit first responders to narrow the search for the caller to a single floor.
  • meet these indoor requirements at either the county or PSAP geographic level.

And a chronological component would be added to the accuracy determination: CMRS providers would have to generate a location fix (“time to first fix”) in no more than 30 seconds in order for the 911 call to be counted towards compliance with location accuracy requirements. (Short calls of, e.g., 10 seconds or less could be excluded in measuring compliance with accuracy requirements because such call may not provide enough time to get a location fix.)

Indoor location accuracy requirements could be demonstrated through participation in an independently administered test bed program modeled on the indoor test bed administered by the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC). Providers could also use alternative means providing the same level of test result reliability.

Along with the more stringent accuracy standards, the Commission is proposing to:

  • standardize the content and the process for delivery of confidence and uncertainty data that is generated by CMRS providers for each wireless 911 call and delivered to PSAPs on request.
  • require CMRS providers to inform PSAPs of the specific location technology or technologies used to generate location information for each 911 call.
  • accelerate the previously established timeframe for replacing the current handset- and network-based accuracy requirements with a unitary requirement.
  • require that CMRS providers periodically report E911 Phase II call tracking information, indicating what percentage of wireless 911 calls include Phase II location information.
  • establish a separate process by which PSAPs or state 911 administrators could raise complaints or concerns regarding the provision of E911 service.
  • require CMRS providers to conduct periodic compliance testing.

The NPRM is chock-full of related questions about which the FCC seeks public comment, including: the benefits of implementing these rules; the costs to carriers, whether a specific waiver process should be implemented for carriers seeking relief from the indoor location accuracy requirements; whether compliance within the proposed timeframes is reasonable; and whether the availability of Phase II information for roamers continues to be a concern, since the evolution of location technology may have reduced differences among carriers that could previously have complicated the location process for roamers. Because of the wide-ranging nature of the FCC’s proposals, all CMRS providers should take the time to review the NPRM carefully to assess its potential impact on their operations.

For this blogger, though, the FCC’s proposal regarding the use of z-axis data to benefit the greater good is probably the most significant use of that information since Capt. Kirk issued the command to move the Enterprise Z-minus ten thousand meters to defeat Khan.

Comments and replies will be set when the NPRM is published in the Federal Register. Check back here for updates.

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: Last E911 Detail Tied Down, Rule Now Effectve

The final element of the Commission’s revised E911 rules has now been blessed by the Office of Management and Budget.  With a Federal Register notice of that fact, Section 20.18 of the rules, as revised last July, has taken effect as of July 25, 2012. The rest of the revised E911 rules took effect last November

Update: New E911 Rules to Take Effect in November

Can you find me NOW? Come November, the chances may be better.

Back in July we reported on the adoption of some new rules designed to make it easier to monitor your location (ours too, but we're more concerned about our readers than ourselves) more precisely through your personal communications devices. The Commission’s Report and Order has now been published in the Federal Register, establishing November 28, 2011 as the effective date of the new rules (not including Section 20.18(h)(2), which has to go through OMB's Paperwork Reduction Act drill first). Some of those rules will be phased in over a multi-year period; others may have a more immediate impact on carriers subject to the more stringent testing regimen and the higher level of location-finding accuracy. Whether or not you the mobile device user will notice any difference is not clear, and probably won’t be until (a) you want to be located or (b) somebody wants to locate you. If the former, let’s hope the new rules work; if the latter, well, it probably depends on who wants to locate you and why.

Update: Comment Deadlines Set re Proposed E-911 Rules

Last month we reported on the Commission’s proposal to enhance the location-identification accuracy of E-911 calls. That proposal has now been published in the Federal Register. As a result, the deadlines for comments and reply comments on that proposal have been established: comments are due by October 3, 2011; reply comments are due by November 2, 2011.

MORE New E-911 Rules: Can You Find Me NOW?

Never mind – the Man will know where you are, even if you don’t

Even as privacy advocates are getting increasingly nervous about the extent to which our communications devices keep tabs on our whereabouts, the FCC is looking to make it easier to monitor our location more precisely and over a broader range of devices.   In a combined Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Third Report and Order, and Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (let's just go with R&O/NPRM for short), the FCC has taken steps to enhance E-911 accuracy in two respects.  

The new measures build upon rules adopted last year in which the FCC tightened and clarified the accuracy requirements for carriers who employ “handset” and “network” solutions for achieving specified location accuracy levels. (Handset carriers rely on the GPS capabilities of the customer’s handset to establish his or her location.   Network carriers rely on triangulation of radio signals among cell towers to find their customers.) By requiring accuracy levels to be met at the county or PSAP level, the Commission indirectly raised the accuracy bar by ensuring that high accuracy is achieved in all parts of a carrier’s service area. (The FCC provided exceptions for areas where dense forestation or the lack of triangulation would not permit these high levels to be reached.)   These accuracy requirements are to take effect over an eight-year period.

In the R&O/NPRM released July 13, the FCC has ordained that, following that eight-year implementation period, the Commission will do away with the separate network-based accuracy standard entirely.

The network solution was always less accurate and more problematic due to the need for at least three proximate towers to get a meaningful reading.   On the other hand, not all cell phones had GPS capability, so there had to be an alternative to the handset approach. But the FCC has determined that GPS capabilities have become so widespread – and are likely to become even more so – that exclusive reliance on the handset standard is appropriate.  Eight years, the Commission figures, should give the public plenty of time to wring the useful life out of their existing non-GPS-capable phones before those phones get turned in for something new. The FCC is, however, requiring CMRS systems coming on line after the effective date of the new rules to comply immediately with the more rigorous handset accuracy standard. (In any case carriers can continue to use whole or hybrid network- based location techniques – but they must nevertheless meet the stricter handset-based standard of accuracy.)

The new rules also mandate that carriers conduct periodic tests of their actual accuracy levels, with the results to be reported to local authorities and the Commission itself. The Commission feels, understandably, that if called upon to measure their performance regularly and be judged on the results, carriers will be more likely to make maintenance of accuracy a priority.   The exact nature of the tests to be conducted awaits recommendations from the Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council.

Always looking for ways to further the reach of call location technology, the FCC is also seeking comment (in the NPRM portion of the R&O/NPRM) on whether it should extend the E-911 accuracy requirements to outbound-only interconnected voice services. (After much debate, the FCC a few years ago extended the location-identification rules to two-way, interconnected voice services provided over the Internet.  The problem was that a computer being used for VoIP doesn’t know where it is, nor does the network, so the customer has to affirmatively register his/her location so the system will know where he/she is. This is not a very good solution since it depends on the customer to vigilantly protect his/her own health and safety rather than making it the service provider’s responsibility.) 

So now the FCC is now asking: (a) if it should extend this requirement incrementally to include one-way VoIP calling (a “Skype-out” only situation); and also (b) whether there is some way technically to locate VoIP users that does not depend on registration by customers themselves.   No one yet has been able to figure out how over-the-top VoIP providers can possibly do the latter.  

The FCC is also seeking input on how indoor calling locations can be established more accurately. This capability will be increasingly helpful as more and more consumers use their mobile phones as their only phone. Locating a cell phone in a ten-story apartment building on a city block would be impossible even with the strictest outdoor standards adopted by the Commission. Finally, the FCC wants to see if WiFi hotspots can somehow be used to help locate callers.

Comments on this forward-looking part of the FCC's action are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, with replies 30 days later. (Check back here for updates on those deadlines.)

We cannot close without sounding a warning note on the civil liberties front. The FCC certainly means well in trying to compel carriers and VoIP providers to carefully, constantly and precisely track the location of their customers. But the potential for abuse is already apparent. Divorce lawyers have discovered that they can track an errant spouse's whereabouts by cell phone. Law enforcement now relies on cell phones to easily track not only fugitives from justice but also “persons of interest”. Merchants track people’s whereabouts so that coupons and promotional offerings can be sent to them when they are immediately next to the potential point of sale.  

Knowledge of a person’s location, it turns out, is a valuable commodity indeed.  

But we are being forced to give this knowledge away for free and without any opt-out choice. The Commission’s R&O/NPRM nods at the privacy concerns raised by the heightened location requirements, but also notes that consumers’ privacy rights are statutorily waived in connection with the delivery of emergency services.

Imagine if a chip were compulsorily implanted in each of us at birth that would permit a government computer to know where we are at all times. In some ways that would be very useful – no lost children, no missing persons, no wandering dementia victims – but the notion is an affront to the inviolability of our persons. Unfortunately, the cell phone, which has become a kind of externally-appended computer chip for many of us, will soon serve that exact function.   We are learning once again that “security” is too often purchased with a subtle loss of privacy, a loss of freedom, and a loss of that most  cherished right cited by Justice Brandeis in his dissent in Olmstead v. United States: the right to be let alone.

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.

Update: Effective Date Set For Remaining Revised E911 Accuracy Rules

Last September we reported on steps the Commission had taken to increase the E911accuracy standards. While many of the changes adopted by the Commission back then took effect in January, several – specifically, §§20.18(h)(1)(vi), 20.18(h)(2)(iii), and 20.18(h)(3) – did not, because they involve “information collections” that had to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget. That approval has now made its way through the bureaucracy, and the FCC has published a notice concerning that approval in the Federal Register. And with that, those rules became effective as of April 28, 2011 (the date the notice made it into the Federal Register).

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.

Effective Date of (Most) New E911 Accuracy Rules Set

Pending OMB approval still keeping some of the new rules in limbo for now

A couple of months ago we reported on two FCC actions involving E911 accuracy standards. In separate decisions released simultaneously, the Commission (a) accepted an industry/public safety community compromise on those standards and (b) proposed to expand the reach of those standards. As we reported a couple of weeks ago, it took the Commission more than a month to get the deadlines for comments and replies about the proposed rules established (by publishing the NPRM in the Federal Register). 

For some unexplained reason, it has taken even longer for the Commission to get the rules it adopted back in September published and, therefore, effective. Never fear, though – today, just in time for Thanksgiving, the Second Report and Order in the E911 location accuracy proceeding has finally made it into the Federal Register. That means that the new rules will become effective in 60 days. Wait, don’t bother to reach for your calendar – we’ve already done the calculation: the effective date will be January 18, 2011 (which is actually 62 days from publication -- presumably that's because the 60th day, January 16, is a Sunday, and the next day, January 17, is Martin Luther King Day).

Note that §§ 20.18(h)(1)(vi), 20.18(h)(2)(iii), and 20.18(h)(3) – all of which were changed in the Second Report and Order – will not necessarily take effect on January 18. That’s because they involve information collections which have yet to be approved by OMB first. OMB approval might be obtained before January 16, but it hasn’t happened yet, so we still can’t say for sure when those particular rules will kick in.

Deadlines For Comments in E911 Proceedings Set

Today appears to be E911 Day in the Federal Register. Two recent E911-related Notices of Proposed Rulemaking are published, which means that the deadlines for comments and reply comments in those proceedings have now been set. (The two NPRMs were separately released back in September, so you’re forgiven if they may have slipped your mind of late.)

The first (CG Docket No. 03-123/WC Docket No. 05-196/WC Docket No. 10-191) involves the issuance of toll-free numbers for iTRS use, a practice which can make it difficult for emergency response teams to respond as promptly as possible to E911 calls. We reported on it here, you can read the full text of the NPRM here, and the Federal Register version may be found here. Comments on the proposed rules are due by December 2, 2010, 2010, and reply comments are due by December 17, 2010. Note that this particular proceeding also involves proposed new “information collection” requirements, which triggers the Paperwork Reduction Act – and thus affords yet a third opportunity to comment. If you feel like commenting on the proposed information collection requirements, you may do so by January 3, 2011.

The second proceeding (PS Docket No. 07-114/WC Docket No. 05-196) involves standards for E911 location capability accuracy. We reported on that one here, you can read the full text of the NPRM here, and the Federal Register version may be found here. Comments in the matter are due by January 3, 2011, and reply comments by January 31, 2011.

New E-911 Rules: Can You Find Me Now?

FCC tightens location accuracy standards, provides relief for rural settings, inquires into possible additional steps

After two years of reflection on the matter, the FCC has decided to accept an industry/public safety community compromise on E-911 accuracy standards. At the same time, it has proposed to expand the reach of those standards to new categories of service providers while tightening the standards even further.

When last we talked about E-911, the FCC had adopted rules that required wireless carriers to achieve a high level of “ALI” accuracy (the ability to identify the location of a call) at the public safety answering point (PSAP) level. This development came about because the rules required emergency call location information to be provided with a high degree of accuracy (within 100 meters) for 67% of the calls received and within 300 meters for 95% of the calls, but the standard was being diluted by carriers calculating their level of compliance over large areas.

To plug this loophole, the FCC ordained that the requisite degree of reliability now had to be met on a PSAP level rather than the larger geographic areas which the rules previously permitted. This requirement was deemed difficult or impossible of compliance by many in the mobile communications industry. Carriers who used the “network” solution (which relies on triangulation of signals to achieve accuracy) complained that in areas with few cell sites, the necessary triangulation was simply not available. Appeals to the Court were duly filed, but before the Court could rule, the Public Safety community (APCO and NENA) indicated that they were amenable to liberalizing the measuring standard to a county level rather than the PSAP level. Further discussions with the largest carriers resulted in agreement by Public Safety that some additional leeway was appropriate in areas where heavy forestation impeded the ability to get extreme accuracy. Given the growing consensus that the standard which had been adopted might need revision, the FCC sought and was granted a remand from the Court so it could re-visit the issue.

After seeking further input, the FCC basically accepted the consensus of the industry and Public Safety as to what was both feasible and would provide a heightened degree of accuracy for first responders. While we are usually uncomfortable when the FCC lets AT&T, Verizon and a few other large carriers speak for “the industry,” in this case the FCC listened both to the largest carriers and to representatives of smaller carriers who moaned that they did not have the same access to new aGPS equipment as the majors. The resulting decision seems to reasonably reflect the needs and concerns of most parties.

The FCC afforded network-based carriers an unusual degree of flexibility in establishing compliance. They can elect to be measured over either counties or PSAPs in their service areas, whichever they desire. And they can use either network-based accuracy data, handset-based data (after a few years), or a combination of both. To further sweeten the deal, the FCC will permit carriers to exclude from the calculation counties or portions of counties where triangulation is not technically possible. The pertinent counties must be reported in the FCC Docket and sent to Public Safety.

This concession to the laws of physics is huge since the triangulation problem was a major impediment to compliance by rural carriers. In addition, even a network-based carrier may rely on handset-based accuracy data if it has a high degree of aGPS-equipped subscribers (85%) network-wide or if it gives aGPS equipment to subscribers in the area at no charge. Handset-based carriers also got some relief: they can exclude up to 15% of counties or PSAPs whose heavy forestation limits handset location accuracy.

All of this is not to say that the new rules do not impose significant burdens. They certainly do. To wit:

  • Carriers who use the network-based solution must meet the 100 meters/67% of calls metric over 60% of their counties or PSAPs within one year of the effective date of the new rules. The counties included must cover at least 70% of the counties covered by the carrier over its entire network. The 70% requirement is presumably there to preclude manipulation of the data, but the FCC offered no explanation for it whatsoever, so it is unclear whether the reference to a carrier’s “entire network” means its entire nationwide network or its network within the particular call sign being measured. Within three years, carriers must meet this metric in 70% of the counties or PSAPs, with 80% of the counties in the entire network being included. Finally, in five years carriers must meet the metric in 100% of the counties or PSAPs. At this point, handset-based accuracy data may also be used to demonstrate compliance, on the assumption that aGPS devices will be relatively widely available by that time.
  • Network-based carriers must meet the 300 meters/90%-of-calls metric on a three year – five year – eight year timetable. Note that the metric for this level of accuracy has been reduced from 95% of calls to 90%.
  • Meanwhile, handset-based carriers have two years to meet an accuracy metric of 50 meters/67% of calls and 150 meters/80% of calls. By year eight they must reach 150 meters accuracy for 90% of calls.
  • No self-respecting FCC regulation would be complete without a reporting requirement. Here the FCC is requiring the reporting of “confidence and uncertainty” data at the request of any PSAP. We appreciate this requirement because a fragile balance of confidence and uncertainty so defines the human condition. The precise nature of this data is notably unclear from the FCC's order, leaving us somewhat on the uncertainty side of the equation in this regard.
  • Finally, the FCC has clarified that the accuracy metrics noted above only apply to outdoor measurements. But how will the measurement process know whether any particular call originated from indoors or outdoors, and therefore whether it should be included in the accuracy calculations?

Having adopted these requirements, the FCC issued a companion notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) inquiring into a number of important issues:

  • Should there be single accuracy metric given the accelerating convergence of handset and network technology?
  • Can the level of accuracy required be stepped up even higher given the new technologies?
  • Should “Z-axis” (i.e., height above ground data) be added to the location requirement?
  • More broadly, should the Commission extend the current VoIP ALI rules to a wider universe of service providers?   The current rules require VoIP users to self-report their location since there is no other way for the network to know where a computer happens to be located. And even this requirement applies only where the customer originates and terminates calls to the PSTN in real time. But as the use of computers and computer-like devices with voice capability spreads, so too does the need to be able to locate 911 calls originated from such devices. The Commission recognizes that such an expansion of the E-911 process would be problematic since the new computing devices are themselves mobile – self-reporting one’s whereabouts would be impractical and would defeat the purpose of “automatic” location identification. This inquiry is plainly at its inception, but it will become more important as all communications move to an Internet-based model.

The deadlines for comments and reply comments have not yet been set. They will depend on the date the NPRM is published in the Federal Register (comments will be due 60 days after publication, replies 90 days after publication). Check back here for updates.