Bulbs Behind Bars III: More Lighting Fixtures Mess Up Mobile Data Service

Manufacturer had warned that office building lights might generate excessive radio noise.

As an environmentally responsible citizen, you probably know more than you want to about light bulbs: incandescents, fluorescents, compact fluorescents, LEDs, and plenty of variations on each. You might have sympathy for the people who handle commercial lighting, who have to worry about all of these types, and many more – and who have to worry about the FCC as well.

Last year we reported on two cases, this one and this one, about FCC actions against users of commercial lighting that caused interference to cell 4G data service. In both cases, so far as we can tell, the fixtures were conventional fluorescents that produced radio noise unintentionally.

The FCC has now presented us with a variation on the theme. The fixtures here – “fluorescent lighting electronic ballasts” – are located in a large office building on South Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles. They’re a specific kind that generate radio-frequency energy on purpose. Ideally the radio waves would stay trapped inside the device, but in practice some always leak out. Unlike most of the fixtures in our kitchens at home, this type is subject to specific FCC technical rules that limit the strength of escaping radio-frequency emissions. At 4G frequencies (and most other frequencies as well), the permitted levels are harmlessly low.

This time, though, the levels were high enough to cause interference to a nearby Verizon Wireless 700 MHz LTE cell site.

Verizon traced the problem to particular lights in the building and notified the building management. When the interference persisted, Verizon called in the FCC. The lighting manufacturer, GE, had previously issued a bulletin noting that some of its units produced excessive radio-frequency emissions. The FCC confirmed which units in the building were causing the trouble, found they were among those covered by the bulletin, and ordered the management to take corrective action. In practice, this typically means replacing the lights.

While the building management has to deal with that expense and disruption, it seems to us that the ultimate responsibility should lie with GE which, after all, shipped devices that admittedly failed to comply with FCC rules. But we commend GE for issuing the bulletin owning up to the slip, an action that may have helped to more quickly identify the problem units. If all manufacturers were this forthcoming about their mistakes, the task of chasing interference would be a lot easier. GE might be immune to FCC enforcement, due to the statute of limitations, but if not, we hope the FCC gives them credit for honesty and goes easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bulb Behind Bars? FCC Cites a Lighting Fixture for Radio Interference

Office illumination caused radio noise on a commercial wireless frequency.

First the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered a children’s magician to set up a disaster plan for his rabbit. Then the FCC asserted jurisdiction over a lighting fixture. It must be something in the water here in Washington.

The offending fixture, which illuminates an office building in San Jan, Puerto Rico, apparently put out a stray signal at 712.5 MHz. That frequency is part of an auctioned band used for commercial wireless communications. The FCC does not say, but we think it likely that the wireless provider tracked down and fingered the office building, much as other wireless providers have complained about other sources of interference.

And, yes, the FCC has jurisdiction over all sources of radio interference, including lighting fixtures. It issued an official warning, called a citation, to the building’s occupant, alerting it to possible monetary forfeitures up into six figures if the interference continues.

For the last few months, a new phrase has been turning up in FCC citations relating to radio interference (and one on automatic dialing). Previously, a citation recipient who commits the same offense a second time has been subject only to penalties for the new offense. The new language makes the re-offender also subject to additional penalties for the original offense that triggered the citation. It’s as if the police stop you for speeding on Monday and give you a warning, stop you again on Tuesday, and thereby make you retroactively liable for Monday’s fine as well as Tuesday’s. Whether or not the imposition of additional penalties based on alleged misconduct that hasn’t been fully adjudicated is really consistent with the Communications Act (and simple fairness) isn’t entirely clear – but so far, the issue has not yet made it to the courts.

Our friend Gary Cavell suggests the office building switch to candles and kerosene lamps – except that might violate environmental laws and create a fire hazard, so their only legally safe choice may be to sit in the dark.