TCBs will be taking care of business as OET exits equipment certification role and FCC modernizes equipment authorization processes.

The FCC lab is finally getting out of the equipment certification business. After nearly two years of deliberation, the FCC has adopted new rules modifying its equipment certification procedures. Most notably, it is handing over responsibility for all equipment certification grants to Telecommunications Certification Bodies (TCBs), which currently process more than 98% of grants anyway. Otherwise the FCC’s overall equipment authorization process, of which certification is a component, will continue largely as it has in the past, albeit with some important changes.

Most devices that radiate radiofrequency energy, either intentionally or unintentionally, must be tested for compliance prior to marketing in the United States. (Important distinction: the equipment authorization process relates only to the performance of the equipment itself. The goal is to assure that RF devices used in the U.S. comply with applicable FCC-imposed standards – typically power, bandwidth, modulation, out-of-band emissions, RF human exposure limits and, for wireless handsets, hearing aid compatibility. The equipment authorization process does not entail spectrum licensing that may be necessary for the operation of transmitters.)

Under the FCC’s rules, there are three types of equipment authorization. The authorization type required for a particular piece of equipment is set in the FCC rules, determined by (a) the likelihood that that equipment will cause harmful interference and (b) the “significance of the effects of such interference”. The three types of authorization are:

Certification – This, the most rigorous process for authorization, requires extensive testing of subject equipment. The new rules require testing by an accredited laboratory. (A list of accredited test labs may be found at this link.) If the test results demonstrate compliance, the “responsible party” – usually the manufacturer or importer – forwards the underlying information, along with an application, to a TCB or (until now) the FCC, which reviews the information and, if everything is in order, grants a formal certification. A TCB issuing a certification will also post the application and related materials to an FCC website.

Declaration of Conformity – This type of authorization also requires testing of the equipment by an “accredited test lab” to confirm its compliance. The results of the testing are not filed with the FCC, and the equipment is not listed in any FCC database; and

Verification – This is the most streamlined of the authorization processes. Tests may be performed by the manufacturer itself or by any test facility of the manufacturer’s choosing. The test results must then be retained by the manufacturer in its internal records; they need be produced only on request from the FCC.

Under the new rules, the FCC will no longer be issuing certifications. Instead, all applications for certification will have to be submitted to TCBs. The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) will retain oversight of TCBs, and TCBs will have to consult with OET with respect to applications involving certain novel or complex technologies.

Many of the new rules modify how TCBs and test labs operate. The Commission has:

  • codified current OET guidance to TCBs;
  • tightened accreditation requirements (requiring accreditation for not only all certification test labs and TCBs but also any subcontractors they may use);
  • codified criteria for the laboratory accreditation bodies;
  • adopted procedures for the validation of test sites; and
  • provided for remedial action when TCBs fail to perform properly.

Manufacturers and importers should take note of some key changes:

TCB Dismissal of Applications: TCBs will have authority to dismiss applications for equipment certification, either because the equipment fails to meet FCC rules, the applicant doesn’t comply with requests for additional information or test samples, or the applicant requests dismissal.

Post-Market Surveillance: TCBs must be accredited. Accreditation requires that TCBs follow up on their certifications by performing “post-market surveillance”, which entails retesting marketed devices to ensure that they comply in the same way the testing samples did. Under the new rules, a TCB must sample, post-market, at least 5% of the device models it certifies. (That’s consistent with current TCB practice.) To avoid the possibility of excess zeal by competitors, only the TCB that issued the initial certification may call in a product for post-approval re-testing. The new rules also provide that TCBs may obtain samples in several ways. TCBs can send someone to the grantee’s factory or warehouse to pick units, at random, for testing. They can require a grantee to supply a voucher that the TCB can use to buy a random equipment sample at retail at no cost to the TCB. And the FCC also plans to tweak its processes to permit a TCB to request samples through the FCC’s equipment authorization system. That last approach puts the FCC’s clout behind the request and is expected to “improve the responsiveness” of the equipment manufacturer. In any event, the FCC will retain authority to request post-market testing.

New Measurements Procedures: To determine compliance with the relevant criteria, the FCC relies on measurement standards developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The FCC’s rules historically referenced ANSI C63.4-2003, a 2003-vintage standard devised by ANSI’s Accredited Standards Committee C63®. But in the intervening decade, ANSI has refined ANSI C63.4 to address unintentional radiators (such as digital devices), and has adopted (with input from the Commission) a new ANSI C63.10, for use in measuring intentional radiators (transmitters) in a wide range of frequency bands. The FCC has now taken this opportunity to revise its rules to refer to the latest and greatest versions of both ANSI C63.4 (adopted in 2014) and ANSI C63.10 (adopted in 2013). This is a big issue for manufacturers because the manner in which emissions are measured can make the difference between grant or rejection. From the Commission’s perspective, reliance on the most up-to-date standards should be particularly helpful in its efforts to ensure compliance by the increasingly numerous and complex universe of Part 15 devices available in the marketplace.

A potentially interesting sidenote. ANSI C63.4 includes a so-called “2 dB rule”, described by the Commission as “a method used to limit the amount of testing needed by determining the worst-case configuration (e.g., number of cables required to be attached) for equipment with multiple ports of the same type.” As noted above, the current FCC rule refers to the 2003 version of ANSI C63.4. But the 2 dB rule was revised in 2009, and again in 2014, in ways that some parties felt might impose considerable burdens on test labs currently using the 2003 approach. Sensitive to that concern, the FCC will continue to accept, for the time being, the use of the 2003 method to determine compliance with Section 15.31(i) of the FCC’s rules.

New OET Authority to Modify Adopted Standards: Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the FCC’s action – and you can check out Commissioner O’Rielly’s partial dissent if you doubt that – involves the Commission’s decision to delegate new authority to OET. With few exceptions, when an FCC rule is to be revised, the revision must be adopted by the full Commission, not one of its subordinate bureaus or offices. But the FCC has now authorized OET to undertake its own rulemaking proceedings to change the rules to incorporate updates to standards already referenced in the rules (including standards that reference other undated standards). OET is not, however, authorized to use this authority to incorporate new standards into the rules. Nor can OET adopt modified technical standards that “raise major compliance issues”. The Commission’s thinking is that this new authority will permit updates at a faster pace than the FCC itself has historically been capable of. In exercising this new authority, however, OET will still be subject to the dictates of the Administrative Procedure Act, which normally requires notice-and-comment rulemaking proceedings. Precisely how much time this may save is not clear, at least according to O’Rielly, who is also troubled by the “subjective and vague” nature of the “no-major-compliance-issues” standard.

Submission of Test Photographs and Diagrams: Under the new rules, applications for equipment certification will have to include photos or diagrams of the test set-up, showing “enough detail to confirm other information contained in the test report”. (Photos must also clearly show the test configuration used.) These, in addition to product photos already required, will bring the certification process into conformity with the Verification and Declaration of Conformity processes.

Our advice to manufacturers: Stay in touch with your test lab and TCB. Keep an eye on updates to the OET Knowledge Database (KDB) as well as activities of relevant standards setting committees. Be sure to retain factory production sample devices in order to comply with any requests for samples for surveillance purposes (if a product is taken off the market, unopened samples must be retained for at least one year afterwards). And pick your TCB carefully, because it can be problematic if equipment passes initially and then subsequently fails during post-market surveillance.