FCC Allows Private Signal Boosters to Enhance Mobile Device Coverage

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-02-24

FCC Allows Private Signal Boosters to Enhance Mobile Device Coverage

The food that appeared before me on the table at Jaleo near Washington, DC, was startlingly beautiful. Once again, legendary chef Jose Andres and his staff had put together a meal that promised to be more than just memorable.

I couldn’t wait to take my first bite of the understated chicken fritter and experience the explosion of taste that I knew would come. But first, I wanted to share the experience, so I took out my phone so that I could Tweet out a photo.

There was no phone service. And not only was my carrier, T-Mobile, not present, neither was AT&T nor Verizon. I was in a dreaded signal-free zone. I regretted not having brought an extra ham radio with me just in case some emergency should arise. You can’t be too careful, you know. Virginia could get another earthquake and then where would I be?

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the wireless carriers to blanket the entire North American continent with enough cell coverage that the signals would make your teeth glow at night, I was in an uncovered area. I felt as if civilization was retreating even as I began to enjoy my meal.

Fortunately, the FCC has been aware of the nagging problem of cell-signal deprived areas for some time and first put out a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking back in 2011. Now, just after I’d been stymied in my failed attempt at social networking in a signal-free zone, the agency came to the rescue. On February 20, the FCC adopted a report and order specifying the operational requirements for cell phone boosters. The idea is that people with poor cell service in their homes or businesses could buy a signal booster so that the area would be covered.

The FCC approved two types of signal boosters. The first type is the consumer version, which does not require you to get a license, but it does require the maker to meet specific technical specifications and you must get consent from your wireless carrier. At this point, the FCC reports that all four major carriers have agreed to do this.

The other type is industrial signal boosters. These are designed for large areas including factories, stadiums, airports and tunnels. The industrial boosters are must be installed by licensed personnel and the boosters themselves must have an FCC license.

While there are already cell phone boosters on the market, the new rules are designed specifically to avoid interference with wireless networks.

FCC Allows Private Signal Boosters to Enhance Mobile Device Coverage

The two types of signal boosters are labeled and they have different use requirements, all of which is spelled out by the FCC. The agency has thoughtfully provided an FAQ page explaining everything.

You won’t be able to buy a signal booster until later in 2013 and the full provisions of the FCC’s rules won’t take effect until the beginning of March, 2014. While you can buy cell signal boosters now, you have no way to know whether the device will interfere with wireless services, but if they do, you’ll be required to turn them off.

The signal boosters are a different type of equipment from the nano-cells that some of the wireless carriers already provide. Those nano-cells don’t boost existing cell signals, but rather provide a cell signal where none exists. Typically they work by connecting to your high-speed Internet connection.

So far the FCC’s rule seems popular within the wireless community and will probably be popular with consumers once they can buy the devices. The FCC developed the standards in partnership with the CTIA—The Wireless Association and the Rural Telecommunications Group and the Competitive Carriers Association.

The Telecommunications Industry Association also weighed in, saying in a prepared statement, “The use of signal boosters improves the reach of wireless networks for consumers, and we applaud the Commission’s adoption today of its Report and Order. The Commission’s technical and operational rules will provide for enhanced coverage while guarding wireless networks from interference.”

Unfortunately, there’s a potential shortcoming to the FCC’s standards. The way the rules are written, each consumer signal booster works with a single carrier, and you have to have permission from the carrier to use it. Getting permission shouldn’t be a problem, since the major carriers and many regional carriers have already agreed, but what do you do if you have more than one carrier represented in your home, or even more likely in your office?

There would seem to be little technical reason why a signal booster for AT&T or T-Mobile wouldn’t work for the signals of either carrier, but would you be allowed to operate it that way? Or would you be required to buy two or more signal boosters? These devices aren’t cheap. If you had to buy one for each carrier in your office, it would be easy to drop a thousand dollars. In addition, the type of antenna and mounting are strictly regulated by the FCC.

While the approval of signal boosters by the FCC is a move in the right direction, it remains to be seen if the restrictions are such that they make these devices impractical.

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