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.)