The Federal Communications Commission has a full plate of complex issues including a nasty fight over the principles of network neutrality and a plan to repurpose unused or underused television spectrum for mobile data use. Anyone who expects a speedy resolution to these tough disputes should consider how long it has taken the FCC to resolve the vastly simpler issue of cell phone signal boosters.
On April 6, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on a plan to create regulations for the boosters, devices that amplify and retransmit wireless signals to allow calls and data transfers in areas of marginal reception. The notice will appear sometime soon in the Federal Register . Comments will be due 45 days after publication, responses to the comments 30 days after that, and then the commission should proceed to a vote and the regulations will be adopted. Don’t hold your breath.
One tip-off is that the NPRM runs 59 dense pages, including a three-page list of commenters on earlier, related proceedings. This fight dates back to at least November, 2007, with CTIA, the trade association of wireless communication companies, asked the FCC to ban cell boosters. The request was part of a petition to ban the sale of devices designed to jam wireless signals, and the conflation of the two issues has plagued the issue ever since.
Cell boosters are fairly simple devices. They can be mobile units that attach directly to a handset, car units that boost a signal within a vehicle, or fixed units to improve reception in a home or other building. They consist basically of a high-gain antenna, an amplifier, and a transmitter. Joe Banos, chief operating officer of Wilson Electronics, the leading maker of the products, admits that under some circumstances, booster, especially badly engineered ones, can cause problems for wireless network. The biggest issue is oscillation. A badly designed booster can pick up its own transmissions and rebroadcast them, creating the radio-frequency equivalent of the howl of audio feedback that occurs when a microphone gets too close to a loudspeaker. But the typical response to technical problems of this sort has been technical standards and regulation, not a ban. “It’s like Carterfone,” says Banos, referring to the decision that opened up the wired phone network to customer-supplied devices. “A booster looks to a cell site like a nearby phone.” The argument is that any device that plays by the rules and doesn;t harm the network should be permitted.
It’s not quite clear why the wireless carriers hate boosters so much. Partly, it may be because they prefer to sell their own boosters, such as femtocells. These are min-cell sites that generate a wireless signal and connect to the phone network via the wired internet. The problem is that they only work for fixed locations, not the mobile use that Wilson says accounts for 60% of sales. Partly it may be the desire of carriers, particularly Verizon wireless, which has been the most vehement opponent of boosters, to main control over everything on their networks.
The FCC didn’t grant CTIA’s request for a ban, but it didn’t create a procedure for approving the boosters either, leaving the devices in legal limbo. In November, 2009, Wilson requested that the FCC begin a formal rulemaking proceeding to set standards. In January, 2010 the commission asked for comments on the proposal, and 15 months later formally began the proceeding with, of course, another request for comments. And it should be noted that this glacial progress is typical of how the FCC functions, no matter which party is in power of who the chair is.
“We’re also hopeful that the NPRM process can bring Wilson Electronics and the cellular service providers to the table to discuss what needs to be accomplished on a practical technical level,” Banos said in a statement after the FCC decision. “This would ensure that signal boosters can continue to provide individual and commercial users as well as government and public safety officials with a valuable tool that allows them to use their cellular devices in more places, with no risk of interference to providers’ cell sites.”
It’s just not likely to happen anytime soon.