FCC Authorizes Progeny over Part 15 Objections

Location service company is deemed to have satisfied the requirement that it not cause unacceptable interference to unlicensed devices.

The FCC has authorized Progeny LMS, LLC to begin commercial operation of its Location and Monitoring Service (LMS) network. Progeny’s system uses part of the 902-928 MHz band, which is heavily occupied by unlicensed devices regulated under Part 15 of the FCC rules. The FCC action came over vigorous objection from the companies that make and use Part 15 equipment.

“So what?” knowledgeable readers will ask. After all, unlicensed devices always have to accept interference from licensed services like LMS.

Not quite always. When the FCC authorized LMS back in 1995, the 902-928 MHz band was already home to a very large array of unlicensed devices serving both consumers and industry. (Their number, variety, and importance have increased many-fold in the years since.) To ensure that LMS did not obliterate unlicensed usage, the FCC adopted a unique rule: certain LMS licenses are “conditioned upon the licensee’s ability to demonstrate through actual field tests that their systems do not cause unacceptable levels of interference to [Part 15] devices.”

Fast forward to 2011, when LMS licensee Progeny requested and was granted a waiver that permitted one-way service and the location of assets other than vehicles. The waiver grant re-triggered the field testing requirement. Progeny conducted four sets of tests and submitted the results to the FCC, which then duly requested comments about the results. Providers of unlicensed wireless Internet service and manufacturers of unlicensed automatic meter reading equipment – both of which require reliable operation – challenged the conclusions. They claimed the tests used too few unlicensed devices, non-representative devices, and conditions artificially rigged to understate interference.

At the request of the FCC staff, Progeny and some of the Part 15 interests conducted further tests on meter-reading and Internet delivery equipment. The FCC requested further comment. Again, the two sides disagreed on how to interpret the results. Along with claiming actual interference, the Part 15 companies continued to insist that Progeny’s tests omitted a large range of unlicensed devices and conditions, and that more testing is needed to properly evaluate the impact of Progeny’s transmitters.

The FCC has now dismissed those arguments.

Part of the dispute turns on the requirement that Progeny not cause “unacceptable levels” of interference to unlicensed devices. The FCC has never before spelled out what that means. Now, it tells us the “unacceptable levels” limitation calls on LMS licensees merely to “minimize” interference to Part 15, but not necessarily to eliminate it altogether. A different reading, says the FCC, would elevate Part 15 in status above LMS, which the rules never intended. Moreover, the FCC goes on, unlicensed users should know to expect some level of interference, and have the option of using equipment that is capable of shifting to other parts of the band when needed. Progeny need not test with every type of Part 15 device, the FCC adds, as that could result in endless rounds of testing.

Progeny offered to: report periodically on its build-out and any interference complaints it receives; establish a toll-free help desk for Part 15 users experiencing interference; and, if it constructs in rural areas, work with local wireless Internet service providers on mitigating interference. The FCC required the first two conditions and encouraged the third.

Editorial comment: The enormous success of the FCC’s rules permitting – indeed, promoting – unlicensed operations has, ironically, caused problems for the agency. When the most-used parts of the current regime took effect in 1985, no one dreamed that unlicensed radio devices would become as prevalent as they are now. Because these devices have always been required to accept interference, the initial uses focused on applications that did not require great reliability. But as the decades went by, and the technologies used in Part 15 equipment evolved to become more robust against interference, the devices found use in more critical applications, including the control of overhead cranes, pipeline systems, and electric utilities.

“Robust,” though, is a relative term. Equipment that works perfectly well in the pre-existing 902-928 MHz environment of ISM, federal radar, amateur radio, and other Part 15 devices may falter when exposed to new interference sources, such as LMS. Yes, the rules say Part 15 users must accept interference and operate at their own risk; and yes, Progeny has a legal right to deploy, if it satisfies the field test requirement. Still, Part 15 equipment has become so important to so many industries – and to the economy generally – that it may have earned a higher status in the spectrum.

(FHH represented clients in this proceeding.)

Update: Progeny vs. Unlicensed Users - Comment Periods Extended

We recently reported that the FCC had invited comments (and reply comments) with respect to test results that may show interference from Progeny LMS, LLC, a licensed provider in the 902-928 MHz band, into some of the myriad unlicensed devices in that same band. The invitation was issued on November 20, and provided that initial comments were to be filed by December 11, a scant three weeks later (with the long Thanksgiving weekend taking up a significant chunk of those three weeks).

The FCC has now extended the comment periods, but not by much. Progeny opposed any extension, but the Commission was persuaded that at least some additional time was warranted. As a result, comments are now due on December 21, 2012 (a whopping ten extra days) and reply comments on January 11, 2013. That latter date is curious because, in the text of the order, the Commission says that it’s “provid[ing] ten additional days for filing reply comments”. But since the original reply deadline was December 21, an extra ten days should have landed the deadline – if our math is correct – on December 31. Despite that, the order clearly specifies January 11 as the new reply deadline, which seems to constitute (again, if our math is correct) a 21-day extension. Let’s just assume that the Commission threw in the extra time in view of the intervening year-end holidays and leave it at that..

Update: Progeny vs. Unlicensed Users - FCC Invites Public Comment

Potentially at stake: the utility of the 902-928 MHz band for unlicensed operations

We recently reported on test results that may show interference from Progeny LMS, LLC, a licensed provider in the 902-928 MHz band, into some of the myriad unlicensed devices in that same band.

The FCC has now asked for public comment on those test results.

Comments are due on December 11, 2012 and reply comments on December 21.

Tests Show Threat to 900 MHz Unlicensed Band . . . Or Do They?

Licensed provider and unlicensed users disagree on meaning of joint test results.

Most of us rely on multiple unlicensed radio transmitters around our home and office. In fact, most us carry several on our person: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on our phone, wireless earphones for the music player, the gizmo that unlocks our car from across the street, a building security card . . . All of these, plus the dozens more in most homes and offices, operate under stringent FCC rules. One of those rules says these devices must accept any radio-frequency interference that comes their way. The engineers who design the products know that, and are good at working around other transmitters in the same frequency range.

There is one exception to this rule: one kind of licensed transmitter is required to protect unlicensed devices against interference. These transmitters operate in the “Location and Monitoring Service” (LMS), which uses large parts of the 902-928 MHz band. That same band is also home to a vast array of unlicensed devices that are convenient around the home (like cordless phones and baby monitors), and vital to commerce and industry (like retail inventory systems and remote controls for construction cranes). LMS providers are uniquely required to show through field tests that their equipment will not cause “unacceptable levels of interference” to unlicensed operation. This special rule reflects the FCC’s judgment that unconstrained LMS poses an exceptional threat of interference to unlicensed devices.

Late last year the FCC granted a waiver to an LMS licensee, Progeny LMS, LLC, that eased back two of the LMS rules. As a condition of the waiver, the FCC required Progeny to test for interference into unlicensed devices. It then sought public comment on the test results. Progeny claimed the results showed little or no interference into unlicensed devices, but commercial users of those devices vehemently disagreed.

In response to an informal request from the FCC, Progeny has now conducted additional tests jointly with three major users of unlicensed equipment in the 902-928 MHz band: the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), whose members provide wireless Internet access, and Landis+Gyr and Itron, which both conduct automatic meter reading. (Links in the preceding sentence go to test reports filed with the FCC.)

As often happens in these cases, the parties disagree on how to interpret the data. 

Progeny reads the results as showing that its system “will not cause unacceptable levels of interference” to unlicensed users. But the three unlicensed users claim the results predict interference in several respects. They note, for example, that Progeny operates at much higher power than do unlicensed devices in the band; that multiple Progeny transmitters in the same area together occupy frequencies for 90-100% of the time; that the tests understated interference into meter reading equipment; and that Progeny’s signal degraded throughput on wireless Internet systems by 40-50%.

The FCC is now evaluating whether Progeny has met its non-interference obligation. Manufacturers and institutional users of devices in the 902-928 MHz band should take a close look at the test results, and should raise any concerns very promptly with the FCC.