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FCC Considering making cellular signal boosters illegal

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  • FCC Considering making cellular signal boosters illegal

    The Federal Communications Commission is considering implementing a law that would make cellphone boosters illegal unless they are deployed by a wireless operator or with the consent of a wireless operator, a move that could impact thousands of end users already owning such devices.

    The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking before the FCC addresses an ongoing controversy within the wireless industry and could impact devices like MagicJack and other femtocell solutions, as well as local and state governments that want to be able to use cellphone jammers to prevent prisoners from unauthorized use of cellphones. Depending on whose argument you believe, the eventual ruling could even have an impact on net neutrality rules. One proponent of signal boosters and jammers said that making boosters illegal won’t address the products already in the market, nor will it stop the sale of signal boosters.

    Wireless industry trade association CTIA in 2007 filed a petition for declaratory ruling at the FCC, asking that it outlaw the sale and use of any device that can enhance or impair cellphone calls. The petition was a surprise to some third-party retailers, who called RCR Wireless News at the time and thought the story had to be wrong. Therein lies the crux of the problem: a cellphone booster can enhance coverage for a customer, but also has the potential to interfere with someone else’s signal. Yet, cellphone boosters have been marketed to carriers and end users alike as a way to improve the cellular signal in areas where coverage is less than satisfactory – and the reality remains that cellphone coverage in some locations is spotty.

    The FCC’s definition of signal boosters is fairly broad as it includes amplifiers, repeaters, boosters, Distributed Antenna Systems and in-building radiation systems that enhance CMRS signals or Part 90 signals. CTIA is asking that the commission rule that companies must have an FCC license to operate a signal booster or have the consent from an FCC licensee (i.e., operator), and that the sale and marketing of devices to unauthorized parties (i.e., end users or commercial building owners) is illegal.

    CTIA also says that wireless microphones, jammers and new products like the MagicJack femtocell device also are threats to the network.

    “Unlike wireless handsets, which are under the control of the wireless licensee’s base station, signal boosters cannot be controlled by wireless licensees. However, it is clear that the commission’s rules require carriers to control and govern the use of signal boosters and amplifiers. In fact, this control contemplated in the commission’s rules exists for very good reasons. Signal boosters, because they are not controlled by the base station, do not operate at the lowest possible power. Rather, these devices are intended to operate at much higher power, which raises the noise floor, harming spectrum efficiency and causing interference that leads to degraded or dropped calls unless the devices are properly installed and overseen by the carrier,” CTIA said in comments on the NPRM.

    “To address the harm caused by unauthorized signal booster operation, the commission must affirm its existing requirements, which prohibit the sale or marketing of signal boosters to unauthorized users. Currently, many manufacturers and retailers market and sell these products to end users with the knowledge that these devices do not and cannot comply with the commission’s licensing and interference control obligations. Under FCC rules, the use of signal boosters is only permitted by licensees or parties authorized by licensees. However, illicit sale and operation of these devices will continue to proliferate – and will be impossible to effectively enforce – if the commission does not take prompt action to affirm these requirements.”

    Not everyone agrees. Howard Melamed, CEO of CellAntenna, said a blanket “make them illegal” mandate doesn’t solve the problem. It will just force end users in need of a solution to buy products overseas. “People don’t go out seeking a solution unless there is a problem.