White Paper: Federal Communications Commission NPRM on Cell Phone Signal Boosters

weBoost | July 2, 2012


Last year, based on a petition for rulemaking submitted by Wilson Electronics, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) as part of FCC Docket 10-4 offering suggestions and soliciting public comments on how to resolve a dispute between cellular service providers and cell signal amplification device manufacturers, and best serve the public interest.

Signal amplification devices, commonly referred to as “signal boosters,” currently offer an array of consumer and public safety benefits by helping subscribers improve the reliability and coverage of their cell service for both voice and data. Cellular signal carriers however, have in the past cited concerns regarding cell site interference caused by boosters.

The problem has been caused by inferior designs reaching the market place as a result of inadequate  FCC Certification standards.  Wilson Electronics has maintained in its petition and throughout the FCC proceeding, that properly designed boosters can operate transparently on all carrier networks without creating interference and has urged the FCC to adopt meaningful booster certification specs.

As background, when issuing its Docket 10-4 NPRM the FCC made the following statement which sheds light on its intentions:

“[Cell Phone] signal boosters serve the public interest by enabling consumers to improve their wireless coverage in rural, under served, and difficult to serve areas. Signal boosters can also address coverage gaps in urban environments such as buildings, tunnels, and garages. Signal boosters can benefit consumers by improving wireless coverage in office buildings where they work, in health care facilities, where health care providers need reliable communications, and on educational campuses were students want access to cutting edge wireless offerings. By bridging gaps in wireless carriers’ coverage areas, signal boosters may also give consumers, particularly rural consumers, additional choices among wireless providers. Such increased competition may benefit consumers through lower prices and increased variety in service offerings. In addition, facilitating the use of signal boosters in rural and other areas of America will further our strategic goal of promoting broadband development, deployment, and availability. The relatively low-cost, coverage enhancing features of signal boosters will thus help many Americans to enjoy the dynamic growth in the variety and quality of wireless service offerings.

[Cell phone] 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. We note that both rural and metropolitan police departments rely on signal boosters to extend land mobile coverage in areas of limited service. First responders, including emergency medical personnel, also use signal boosters to improve communications during disasters and other emergencies.” 

Current Situation

Since the NPRM was issued over a year ago, Wilson Electronics has successfully collaborated with cellular carriers in determining the safeguards and specifications required to assure operational integrity of cell sites operating in the vicinity of a cellular signal booster.  The resulting set of network protection protocols were submitted to the FCC on June 8, 2012, in the form of a Docket 10-4 joint filing by Verizon Wireless, T Mobile Wilson Electronics, V-COMM Telecommunications Engineering, and Nextivity, Inc. Sprint as well as AT&T were included the specification vetting process. Though they chose to not participate in the joint filing, they also indicated they would not oppose it.

The proposed rules, if adopted, would accomplish the goals of the Commission and adequately protect the interests of the stakeholders.

Unfettered access of boosters which would be FCC Certified under the proposed rules will significantly benefit both carriers and consumers as long as carriers do not unreasonably deny the use of boosters.  Some of these benefits are:

Coverage – consumer boosters that meet these specifications will significantly improve voice and data coverage in rural America, both in mobile and in-building scenarios thus furthering the commission goals of improving broadband coverage and making public safety communications more reliable by providing responders with cellular back up to two way radios which are often out of range. Subscribers in urban dead spots would also benefit from signal access without the need for new tower sites and associated “NIMBY” issues. Empirical field tests have indicated that the use of a booster can increase the coverage in square miles of a typical rural cell site by 3 times. Neutrality–the specifications are technology neutral and provide protection for all CMRS network technologies that are used and planned for Cellular including LTE CDMA, GSM, PCS, AWS. Affordability–boosters that meet the specifications will be affordable to consumers, with estimated prices expected to range from $100 to $300 for mobile consumer boosters and $200 to $500 for fixed boosters. Flexibility–the specifications would allow boosters to operate in both mobile and fixed environments and on multiple frequency bands, thus providing consumers with the ability to continue to use boosters, even if they switch service providers. Compatibility–the specifications will protect wireless networks from any interference, thus enabling boosters to be used to improve coverage and service quality with no fear of harm to the network. Public Safety. Boosters are presently used by law enforcement and first responders with many reported incidents in which their use has saved lives. The new standard will assure that these men and women will receive well designed products. Industrial and Service Improvements: Machine To Machine (M2M) communications such as remote ATMs, Video Rental Kiosks, remote patient monitoring, asset tracking, oil field communications and exploration monitoring, much of which communicates over the cell networks would work more reliably and in more places with the help of signal boosters.

Boosters have already achieved a significant market penetration in the consumer marketplace and are a ubiquitous part of the cellular communication market.  With well over a million boosters currently in operation, and monthly consumer demand currently in the six figures, it is clear that the integration of booster units into the networks is now being achieved by both good boosters and inferior boosters. In order to maintain a seamless integration of signal boosters, tighter specifications are needed going forward to prevent poorly designed boosters from continuing to enter the marketplace and causing harm to the cellular network.

Unresolved Issues

While the June 8, 2012, joint filing represented great progress, the parties however disclosed that they were unable to agree as to whether consent by each individual carrier should be required before a subscriber is authorized to operate a certified consumer signal booster.

The entire purpose of this proceeding was to establish a stringent FCC certification standard that would ensure that a certified booster will not in any way cause harm to any cellular network. There is general agreement that this has been achieved. To require a consumer who wishes to utilize such a booster to obtain carrier consent prior to the use of the booster, is completely unnecessary, could prompt anti-competive behavior from the carriers and is burdensome in the extreme to the consumer.

Consider the following hypothetical future situation:

Assume that a carrier reaches a financially lucrative deal with a low cost  booster manufacturer to sell its boosters through the carrier’s retail outlets. What would stop such a carrier from not granting permission for any booster on its network other than the one it markets? The existence of an individual carrier permission rule could potentially close down the independent booster manufacturing industry even if consent denial is not ever employed by the carriers.

Wilson also believes that a carrier-consent requirement would be technically, practically and legally-unjustifiable. It would add unneeded hurdles to consumers needing boosters to make their connections more reliable and extend their coverage. It would also damage booster sales because of consumer uncertainty and fear of purchasing something they may not be able to use. For example, how would a subscriber roam through areas where a carrier may permit a particular booster but the next one down the road may not?  How about families with phones from different carriers using a common booster?

Granting such a power to the carriers would irreparably harm the consumers and eviscerate the public safety benefits provided by boosters. It will also put at risk the independent booster manufacturing industry.

The  purpose for  adopting stringent technical rules or establishing technical “safe harbors” as is being jointly proposed to the FCC is to ensure that compliant signal boosters could be operated by consumers without adversely affecting network reliability, operation or management.  These technical safeguards serve to obviate the need for carrier consent and enable consumers to operate robust signal boosters to improve their wireless coverage as they deem necessary. Requiring consumers to obtain carrier consent prior to operating compliant signal boosters would defeat the purpose of the safeguards.  It would be absurd for the Commission to constructs a safe harbor, within which properly-designed consumer signal boosters could be operated, and then authorizes carriers to block consumer access to that safe harbor.

If it requires consumers to obtain carrier consent to operate a compliant signal booster, the Commission would simply be empowering carriers to engage in unreasonable or discriminatory practices.

Finally, at present the carriers are also asking the FCC to institute some form of registration on the part of the consumer. This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as it’s kept simple for the consumer. If the registration is made to be too cumbersome it may result in non-compliance from consumers. These registration procedures should be consumer friendly, and could range from mail-in registration cards in the packaging of each booster to the use of a Web-based registration process.

This product registration requirement ensures that only boosters in compliance with the required specifications are available to the public in consumer marketing channels.  Registration could present significant market entry barriers for any manufacturer not meeting these specifications to market an unauthorized booster product.

In the end, the FCC can establish a reasonable regulatory scheme that would allow for the adequate protection of cellular signal carriers and their systems while allowing booster signal device manufacturers to provide the valuable public service that facilitates consumer access to a cellular network in currently underserved areas.