At its February 2013 Open Meeting, the FCC adopted for the first time rules that permit wireless signal boosters (devices used to boost weak CMRS or other wireless signals in order to enhance service range). This step is part of the FCC’s ongoing effort to facilitate expanded broadband deployment and efficient use of spectrum.
The order establishes specific technical standards, and, over the vigorous objections of public interest groups and wideband booster manufacturers, requires carrier consent and consumer registration of the booster prior to operation. The major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — have made submitted public commitments to the FCC that they would consent to boosters that meet the new technical standards in the rules.
The new rules divide signal boosters into two classes: 1) Consumer and 2) Industrial.
The Consumer Booster category is intended to cover those boosters that are sold in the mass market, work right out of the box and, most importantly, do not require carrier participation for configuration or specialized installation. These boosters will be subject to network protection technical standards aimed at ensuring that they do not interfere with carrier networks. There are three types of standards for these types of boosters: wideband (i.e., boosters intended to be used across various types of networks), frequency specific (i.e., boosters intended to be used for repeating a single carrier’s network); and an “equivalent protection” category intended to allow booster designers to design products outside the two prior categories so long as they can demonstrate network protection equivalency (subject to a public notice process).
The use of Consumer Boosters requires carrier consent, as well as user registration of the device with the carrier, prior to operation. For these types of boosters, consumers are strongly encouraged to call their carrier to ensure that the selected booster will work on the carrier’s system and that the carrier consents to the use of the booster on its licensed spectrum. The order highlights the importance of this customer-carrier communication. Consumer boosters will be limited to particular frequency bands (Cellular, PCS, AWS, and 700 MHz blocks) and must be labeled as a “consumer” device.
The second category established by the order is “Industrial” boosters. This category covers those boosters that are installed with the consent of the carrier, are configurable by the carrier and are meant to be used in more customized environments/settings. Because of the carrier’s participation and oversight into the operation of these boosters, they will not be subject to the technical network protection standards associated with Consumer Boosters. These boosters will be labeled as “industrial” use devices (the Commission is focused on ensuring that consumer-class devices are not certified/marketed as industrial class devices in order to skirt the network protection requirements).
One of the more significant outcomes in this proceeding is the FCC’s decision to require carrier consent for the use of boosters on the carriers’ licensed frequencies. The order does not impose any specific requirements concerning carrier consent (i.e., no requirement that a carrier give consent, follow particular standards, explain why consent is denied, act within certain timeframes, etc.), and consent can be revoked by a carrier at any time. The order makes clear that boosters will be authorized under the relevant carrier’s license, for the frequencies on which it is licensed to operate, and the carrier will have the right to consent or not consent to any particular booster. If a booster is intended to be used across multiple carriers’ frequencies, then the user will need to obtain consent and register the booster with all of the relevant carriers (i.e., a two-carrier cellphone household would need to get consent from both carriers). “Fleeting uses” of other frequencies (e.g., a visitor in a home with a booster that happens to use a third carrier) would not need to go through the consent/registration process.
To monitor whether the public interest is being harmed by a carrier pattern of denials, carriers will report to the FCC annually information on the devices to which they have provided consent, rejected devices, and other relevant information for three years. The FCC noted the possibility that it would adopt additional requirements if it finds an unacceptable pattern of denials.
Upon the effective date of the order, the FCC intends to cease certifying booster equipment that does not meet the new technical rules. Manufacturers can continue to market devices under existing certifications granted under the old rules for twelve (12) months, until March 2014. After that date, equipment that does not meet the new network protection standards may not be marketed or sold. For boosters already sold to consumers, if consent has already been obtained, then the device can remain in use. If not, then the consumer will need to register the device with the relevant carrier(s) and obtain consent.
The permissibility of boosters has been hotly contested for years, and the FCC had to make a number of hard decisions to develop an approach that would address carrier concerns about interference and unlawful use of their licensed signals while enabling both consumer wideband and frequency select devices to be marketed. While this decision may not be the last FCC ruling on signal boosters, it provides the industry much needed regulatory certainty. The decision also furthers the Commission’s larger framework to expand broadband availability in the United States. The FCC’s work toward obtaining public commitments to grant consents by the carriers and providing for a monitoring program to review the carrier consent process for the next several years demonstrates the FCC’s intention to ensure that the booster industry retains an avenue for growth and development and that boosters continue to be made available for retail consumers and large organizations alike.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you would like more information about how the FCC’s signal booster decision and the policies it raises apply to your company:
Jeffrey R. Strenkowski
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This article was originally published by Bingham McCutchen LLP.