FCC Proposes Rules for Wireless Signal Boosters

July 15, 2011

The FCC has extended the due dates for comments and reply comments, July 25, 2011 and August 24, 2011, respectively, in its proceeding aimed at regulating the use of wireless “booster” devices, which should be of particular importance to wireless carriers (both private and commercial), equipment manufacturers, and other parties interested in the development of the wireless voice and broadband market through new technologies and consumer services.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposes a new regulatory framework authorizing individuals and entities to operate “consumer signal boosters” provided that such devices comply with: (1) all applicable technical and radiofrequency (RF) exposure rules, and (2) a set of parameters aimed at preventing and controlling interference and rapidly resolving interference problems should they occur. An overview of the technology, proceeding background, and proposed rules are provided below.

Proposed Rules

“Signal booster,” as used in the NPRM, includes all manner of fixed or mobile amplifiers, repeaters, boosters, distributed antenna systems, and in-building radiation systems that serve to amplify signals for subscriber-based services between a device and the network. Fixed devices facilitate the use of mobile devices inside homes, buildings, and other structures, such as sports arenas. Examples include an outside antenna installed on a roof or side of a building, connected via coaxial cable or other equipment to an interior amplifier that itself has a built-in antenna or is connected to one or more interior panel antennas that permit communication with mobile devices in the structure or a distributed antenna system (DAS) . The NPRM defines mobile signal boosters to include devices that transmit/receive wireless signals with cell phones operated inside a vehicle (e.g., a car, boat or RV) with an outside antenna attached to the roof of the vehicle. The NPRM specifically excludes “femtocells” from the definition of “signal booster.”

The NPRM recognizes a number of potential problems that may be caused by poorly manufactured or improperly installed signal boosters such as wireless network interference (adjacent channel noise or oscillation), base station receiver overload, interference of the Sprint/Nextel network in the 800 MHz spectrum band due to signal boosters used to improve public safety signal coverage (which networks are interleaved in many markets), challenges with E-911 systems that use signal positioning technologies, etc. The NPRM seeks comment on a number of proposed rules designed to minimize these problems.

For All Signal Boosters:

  • Licensing Requirements: Signal boosters should be licensed “by rule” rather than through individual licenses, to ease the administrative burdens associated with individual licensing.
  • Technical Requirements: All consumer signal boosters must be manufactured to meet all applicable technical specifications for the relevant band(s) of operation as they apply to mobile units (i.e., not base station technical specifications), including, as applicable (under Parts 22, 24 and 27), specified power levels, out-of-band emissions (OOBE) limits, and frequency tolerance limits.
  • Self-Monitoring: Signal boosters must automatically self-monitor their operations to ensure compliance with the FCC’s technical rules and shut down automatically within ten seconds or less if operating in violation of those rules, and must remain shut down for at least one minute before restarting. All signal boosters must detect feedback or oscillation and deactivate the uplink transmitter within ten seconds of detection, and must not restart until manually reset. The NPRM asks whether additional requirements should be imposed (i.e., other triggers to initiate device shut down), whether separate rules are needed for Personal Communications Service (PCS) and Cellular Radiotelephone Service bands, whether transmit output power, rather than ERP limits, would be more a appropriate measure, what impact do wideband boosters have on carrier networks, and whether to differentiate between wideband and narrowband signal boosters.
  • RF Rules: The NPRM also seeks comment on RF rules that would prohibit signal boosters that are designed to be used so that the radiating structure(s) is/are within 20 centimeters of the user or other persons, as defined for portable devices in Section 2.1093(b).
  • Labeling and Marketing Requirements: Marketing materials must include a consumer disclosure that signal boosters are subject to Part 95 and operate on a secondary non-interference basis and must cease operation immediately if requested by the FCC or a carrier.

For Fixed Operation Boosters:

  • Carrier Coordination: Operators must coordinate frequency selection and power levels with wireless carriers to limit interference.
  • Labeling and Marketing Requirements: Labeling and marketing materials must also include a specific warning that operation must be coordinated with wireless licensees.
  • Additional Areas for Comment: The NPRM seeks comment on how coordination should be structured -- whether specific timelines for responses be imposed, what dispute resolution procedures should apply, etc. The NPRM also solicits input on whether additional requirements are necessary such as a requirement for dynamic power control, what coordination should be required for temporary or emergency installations, whether additional safeguards necessary for fixed outdoor installations, such as a professional installation requirements.

For Mobile Boosters:

  • Automatic Power-Down and Tethering:  Mobile boosters will be required to power down as they are no longer needed (i.e., as the device nears a base station). The NPRM asks whether the FCC should only permit carrier-specific signal boosters for mobile applications, or require that mobile signal boosters be tethered to the phone or  a docking station.
  • Other  Proposals:

  • Additional Areas for Comment: The NPRM also seeks input on whether it should adopt other specific alternative proposals offered by AT&T, CTIA, the DAS Forum and Wilson Electronics. It also seeks comment on a number of specific proposals such as how the FCC should deal with existing boosters that may not meet new rules (i.e., grandfather or sunset)? The NPRM also proposes to requirements to transition to the new requirements quickly. The NPRM also proposes to revise rules governing the use of private land mobile service signal boosters under Part 90.

The Commission’s signal booster proceeding affects wireless carriers (both private and commercial), equipment manufacturers, and other parties interested in the development of the wireless voice and broadband market.

Interested parties may file comments with the Commission as indicated above. Please feel free to contact us should you want to discuss the significance of this NPRM. We would be pleased to assist you in commenting on these proposals.

Catherine Wang

Jeffrey R. Strenkowski

This article was originally published by Bingham McCutchen LLP.