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Weighing in on Signal Boosters – AT&T vs consumer signal boosters? Kinda

On April 6, 2011 the FCC announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) acknowledging the need that consumer signal boosters are necessary to fill gaps in the carriers wireless coverage.  With this announcement the FCC has set a 45-day window for comments regarding proposed regulations regarding Consumer Signal Boosters(1).  I will include a link below to the 55 page NPRM below, as it is near impossible for me to easily break down such a large document into a size befitting thedroidguy.com  After the break,  I will include the basics of the document, along with some of the more important aspects found within.

The FCC is:
  • Seek comment on whether to require registration with a national signal booster clearinghouse prior to operation.
  • Seek comment on the treatment of existing signal boosters.
  • Facilitate the near-term availability of new, compliant consumer signal boosters by:
within 30 days of the effective date of the rules, requiring that all applications for equipment authorization for signal boosters demonstrate compliance with the new rules; and,
within 6 months of the effective date of the rules, requiring that devices marketed or sold in the United States comply with the new rules.
  • With respect to Part 90 Private Land Mobile Radio (PLMR), non-consumer signal boosters operated by licensees, revise the technical and operational requirements aimed at preventing interference.

Benefits of consumer signal boosters:
  • Public Safety –

Signal boosters also provide public safety benefits.  In areas where wireless coverage is deficient or where a signal is blocked or shielded, signal boosters enable the public to connect to 911 in an emergency.(2)  We note that both rural and metropolitan police departments rely on signal boosters to
extend land mobile coverage in areas of limited service.(3) First responders, including emergency medical personnel, also use signal boosters to improve communications during disasters and other emergencies.(4)
  • Increased Coverage
Signal boosters are signal amplifiers that can be deployed in many Federal Communications Commission FCC 11-53 5 different configurations to improve the wireless connection between a mobile device and the wireless network. Signal boosters are often used to amplify and distribute wireless signals to areas with poor signal coverage and can expand the area of reliable service to unserved or weak signal areas, including garages, underground transportation systems, and large buildings. Two key variables affect the quality of a wireless connection. The first variable is distance to the nearest cell site or base station. In general, the farther away a cell phone is moved from a cell site, the weaker the signal. The second variable is any physical obstacle between the cell phone and the base station. Natural and man-made obstacles, including terrain and buildings, can block the radio frequency waves which form the communications link between a cell phone and a base station. In addition, metal, glass, and foliage, while not entirely blocking a signal, can attenuate or reduce the signal.(5) Poor quality signals can lead to dropped calls, slower data speeds, and depleted battery life.

Issue of signal boosters:

Poorly designed, improperly installed or malfunctioning signal boosters can cause interference to both commercial and public safety wireless networks.  Signal boosters can produce “noise,(6)” which has the potential to interfere with wireless networks.  This “noise” can take the form of adjacent channel interference, oscillation, or base station receiver overload, which are explained below.  (I have included all of this extra information off site linked here).

(Bird Technologies, the DAS Forum, and Wilson Electronics) petitioned the FCC for standards regarding consumer signal boosters.  The reasoning behind the petition was to protect their businesses.  In  light of some strong resistance from AT&T  (primarily) as well as CTIA (nonprofit membership organization that represents the wireless communications industry) there is a distinct need to define standards to protect consumers, manufacturers, as well as the public safety sector.  With a set of regulations it is possible to weed out the sub-standard products which may, in fact, cause significant problems within cellular networks including dropped calls and loss of connectivity.

Prior to the ruling AT&T and CTIA dissent: AT&T respectfully requests that the Commission: (1) issue a Public Notice reminding the public that operation of a signal booster on CMRS exclusive-use frequencies requires a license or licensee consent; (2) aggressively enforce the prohibition on end user operation of a signal booster without a license or licensee consent; (3) affirm – consistent with the CTIA Petition – that the marketing and sale of signal boosters to individuals that may not legally operate them is itself illegal; and (4) create an accelerated docket procedure allowing carriers to file complaints regarding manufacturers of transmitting equipment that has caused multiple harmful interference events and for such complaints to be addressed within sixty days. (Petitions Regarding the Use of Signal Boosters and Other Signal Amplification Techniques Used with Wireless Services Petitions Regarding the Use of Signal Boosters and Other Signal Amplification Techniques Used with Wireless Services)

Translation:  Pay AT&T licensing fees to use our spectrum.

Following the ruling AT&T responded: Earlier today, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to examine rules for booster operation.  Although we’re still reviewing the NPRM, we are hopeful that it will provide some clarity to the rules of the road.

As we have said before, there must be a way to take action against manufacturers who distribute devices that cause interference.  The manufacturer, and not the consumer, is in the position to know whether their device complies with the Commission’s rules.  The FCC also must conduct consumer outreach so that consumers know that the use of a booster is at their own risk.  And we are encouraged that the FCC is proposing to require consumer disclosures on marketing materials, devices and packaging.  Such measures are needed to prevent consumers from getting an unfair and unwelcomed surprise with their booster purchase – a letter from an FCC field agent telling them they can’t lawfully operate the device they were just sold.

The reasoning behind the FCC ruling:

Making sure that rural customers as well as first responders are able to connect to both voice and data services is a priority for the FCC.  They see consumer signal boosters as part of the solution.  “Our goal in this proceeding is to facilitate the development and deployment of well-designed signal boosters that do not interfere with wireless networks.”  They also said “Police departments and emergency medical personell rely on signal boosters to extend land mobile coverage in areas of limited service and to improve communications during disasters and other emergencies.”

If AT&T had their way the manufacturers of consumer signal boosters, Wilson Electronics, Wi-Ex, and others would basically be forced to pay HUGE sums of money for licensing.  This would certainly stifle the ability of these companies to advance their technology.  If the carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint cannot provide adequate coverage then tools should be made available to consumers.  These tools should not come with threats veiled or expressed by the soon-to-be market leading wireless carrier, AT&T.

The FCC also announced that carriers need to offer data roaming agreements to the regional carriers.  We had discussed this prior to the FCC enacting the ruling.

While at the CTIA Mobile Life 11 tradeshow in Orlando Florida last month thedroidguy.com spoke with Jon Bacon of Wilson Electronics who let us know some of the things that they were doing at Wilson Electronics to prevent interference with Cell phone towers.

Wilson has implemented proximity based sensoring that when the signal booster gets close to a tower it will power itself down, to the point where when it’s in very close proximity the booster will shut off.  Wilson has garnered support from public safety officials, consumers, local governments and more that clearly explain the need for signal boosters, especially in rural areas.

Although we didn’t speak with Wi-Ex directly, Bacon was pretty sure that Wi-Ex is incorporating similar technology.  Although signal boosters are great to have as consumers there is a real need in some industries to have signal boosters available.

Source(s) FCC1FCC2, AT&T blog

(1) – We define the term “consumer signal booster” in this NPRM to include any signal booster operated by (or for the benefit of) consumers on spectrum being used to provide subscriber-based services, e.g., voice communications, texting, using a broadband connection to access e-mail or the Internet. We define the term “consumer signal booster” in this NPRM to include any signal booster operated by (or for the benefit of) consumers on spectrum being used to provide subscriber-based services, e.g., voice communications, texting, using a broadband connection to access e-mail or the Internet.

(2) In May 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that until wireless capacity is extended along highly traveled rural roads, motorcoaches traveling in rural areas without wireless telephone coverage should carry mobile cellular amplifiers or satellite-based devices to communicate during emergency events.  NTSB Safety Recommendation, H-09-9, at 4-5 (May 29, 2009), available at http://www.ntsb.gov/Recs/letters/2009/H09_9.pdf (lasted visited July 19, 2010).  Ex Parte Letter from Russell D. Lukas, Counsel to Wilson Electronics, Inc. to Hon. Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (Mar. 30, 2011) at 2 (describing how use of signal boosters will improve E911 connectively and accuracy).

(3) See, e.g., Ex Parte Letter from Russell D. Lukas, Counsel to Wilson Electronics, Inc. to Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary, Federal Communications Commission (Dec. 15, 2010) at Attachment 1 (Wilson December 15, 2010 Ex Parte Letter ) (describing need for signal boosters by Sheriff’s office in rural Washington County, Utah, because many areas of the county lack two-way radio signal coverage due to challenging geography and terrain); Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department Comments at 1 (bi-directional amplifier systems “supplement in-building two way public safety radio communications coverage where it wouldn’t otherwise exist or would be unreliable”); Cobb County E-911 Comments at 1 (“great and positive” benefits of signal boosters include “ability to provide critical or important communications where there is limited or none”). See also New York City Transit Authority Reply Comments at 2 (NYCTA uses fixed boosters for police, fire and EMS operations in New York’s underground subway system); Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications Comments at 1-2 (signal boosters are “essential components” to most transport operators to enable “vital communications” within tunnels, underground facilities, and buildings)

(4)  See, e.g., APCO Comments at 1 (“signal boosters are extremely valuable to public safety networks”); Wilson December 15, 2010 Ex Parte Letter at Attachment 1 (Christopher Andrews, Wilson County Emergency Management, Tennessee (noting the need for signal boosters in emergency response vehicles in order to serve rural areas); Karen Kempert, Emergency Manager/911 Systems Coordinator, Langdon, ND (describing the use of a signal booster to facilitate communications on a search and rescue operation in an area of challenging terrain); John Thompson, Flagstaff, AZ (stating that “[s]ignal amplifiers are essential for rural emergency responders and rural residents” both on and off Navajo reservations)

(5)  Ex Parte Letter from Russell D. Lukas to Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary, Federal Communications Commission (May 12, 2010), Attachment In-Car Cellular Signal Boosters, White Paper Prepared for: Wilson Electronics at 2

(6) In radio communications, “noise” refers to any unwanted electro-magnetic energy or signal that degrades or obstructs the desired signals.

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Ethics Statement: While we remain impartial in our coverage of this or any story it is important to note that throughout the year Wilson Electronics is a regular sponsor of thedroidguy.com. Also equally important to note is that Wi-Ex has in the past, also sponsored thedroidguy.com