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FCC To Toughen Regulation Of Cell-Signal Boosters

4/07/2011 09:55:31 AM Eastern
Washington, D.C. - The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to impose more stringent regulations on fixed and mobile cellular-signal boosters to prevent interference with cellular carriers' networks.

The commission proposed new technical standards for mobile (in-vehicle) and fixed (in-home and in-building) signal boosters and wants to impose a series of obligations on users.

In proposing the new regulations, the FCC also asked the industry for suggestions on how it could refine them.

CTIA-The Wireless Association and carriers had sought an outright ban on the sale or use of signal boosters without carrier consent, but the FCC said it came out against a ban because well-designed boosters will benefit consumers "by improving wireless coverage in rural, indoor, and other hard-to-serve locations where wireless coverage may be deficient."

The commission noted, however, that "malfunctioning, poorly designed, or improperly installed signal boosters... may harm consumers by blocking calls, including E-911 and other emergency networks." Verizon Wireless, the FCC noted, has complained that signal-booster interference "has ranged from degrading a single digital channel on a single cell sector, to degrading multiple channels on multiple cell sites, leading to a reduction in the coverage area of a cell sector, to shutting down channels, sectors, or cell sites entirely."

AT&T disclosed an incident in which a mobile signal booster on a yacht caused substantial interference to six AT&T towers in Florida for 21 hours, causing 2,795 dropped calls and 81,000 "blocked or impaired calls" because the signal booster came too close to the cell towers, the FCC continued. AT&T also complained that signal-booster interference increases the percentage of dropped calls, reduces base station coverage, and reduces the battery life of cellphones used by other customers.

Public-safety agencies have also complained that the boosters interfered with public-safety radio networks, the FCC said. In some cases, a cell booster might give an inaccurate GPS location to emergency personnel if the user is dialing 911, the FCC noted.

For its part, Wi-Ex, a supplier of boosters under the zBoost brand, said it was happy with the FCC's plan. "With hundreds of thousands of boosters already helping municipal, state and federal governments, military installations, security agencies, businesses, healthcare facilities and most importantly consumers, today's NPRM [notice of proposed rulemaking] is a win for consumers," said Wi-Ex CEO Lloyd Meese. "We recognized from the beginning that oscillation could be an issue and developed patented technology as a solution to the problem."

CTIA-The Wireless Association withheld comment on the proposals. "While we have yet to read the [proposed rules]," CTIA said on Wednesday, "We remain concerned that poorly manufactured or improperly installed boosters can do much more harm than good for both consumers and public safety officials."

To prevent such interferences, the FCC proposed multiple technical standards, such as requiring boosters to:

  • meet applicable  technical specifications required of cellular handsets, such as specified power levels and out-of-band emissions limits.

  • self-monitor their operation to ensure compliance with FCC technical rules and shut off automatically within 10 seconds or less if they are not operating as required.

  • detect feedback or oscillation (between the booster's antenna and the cellphone's antenna) and deactivate their transmitter within 10 seconds of detection.

Mobile signal boosters would also have to power down or shut down as they approach the base station with which it is communicating, thus "mitigating excess noise to base stations from signal boosters that are operating but not needed."

The commission also asked for advice on how to prevent a mobile booster from interfering with a base station with which it is not communicating. It asked, for example, whether to permit only carrier-specific signal boosters for mobile applications or perhaps require that mobile boosters be tethered to the phone to ensure amplification of only the desired signal.

The FCC also wants to impose obligations on users. Users, for example, will have to:

  • register a mobile or fixed booster to help carriers track down boosters that might be causing interference.

  • stop using a mobile booster if notified by the FCC or a carrier of interference.

  • turn on a fixed booster only after getting local carriers to okay the booster's channel selection and power level.

Marketers would be required to print these user obligations on marketing materials, packaging, instruction manuals and on the boosters themselves.

As for existing boosters now in use but not compliant with the proposed regulations, the FCC asked whether those boosters should be phased out or certain models grandfathered in.

Within six months of the rules' effective date, all boosters marketed in the U.S. would have to comply with the rules. Within 30 days of adoption, any new booster submitted to the FCC for approval would have to comply.

Before the FCC vote, booster maker Wilson Electronics was hopeful that the commission would allow the use of cell signal boosters but subject them to increased regulations. Said COO Joe Banos before the vote, "We are hopeful that when a preliminary ruling comes down, the FCC decides to allow the use of cell signal boosters subject to increased regulations requiring booster manufacturers to meet industry standards specifications for cell phones in addition to having designed in technologies such as cell site overload/noise floor level protection and feedback oscillation sensing with auto-shutdown."

These requirements, when to the FCC equipment certification process "would ensure that all manufacturer's booster products work transparently and don't interfere with cell sites," he said.
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