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.