FCC Signal Booster Policy Said to Favor Carriers over Consumers

The FCC has adjusted its stance on wireless signal boosters. A new report says consumers must get their carrier's approval to use a booster. 

Wireless signal boosters are the topic of a new report from the Federal Communications Commission.

As the wireless carriers race to push out ever-faster networks to their subscribers, the FCC is working to ensure that the hardest-to-reach bits of the country have even a basic degree of coverage, and it says that signal boosters can help. However, it also doesn't want those boosters to interfere with the efforts of the carriers, and so it has established new regulations for the devices.

"While nearly the entire U.S. population is served by one or more wireless providers, coverage gaps that exist within and at the edge of service areas can lead to dropped calls, reduced data speeds or complete loss of service," the FCC explained in a Feb. 20 report and order. "Robust signal boosters can bridge these gaps and extend coverage at the fringe of service areas."

The FCC added that the boosters can be particularly useful in commercial deployments, such as in hospitals, and that consumers have also benefited from "out-of-the-box" boosters designed to improved coverage within limited areas, such as in homes or recreational vehicles.

However, fearing that these consumer-geared devices might interfere with the signals of wireless networks, or even that consumers might mistakenly purchase industrial, rather than consumer, boosters, the FCC laid out new regulations, which all consumer and industrial units sold in the United States must meet by March 1, 2014.

"Consumer Signal Boosters will be authorized under provider licenses subject to certain requirements," the report stated. "Specifically, subscribers must obtain some form of licensee consent to operate the booster; register the booster with their provider; use a booster that meets the Network Protection Standard and is FCC certified; and operate the booster on a secondary, noninterference basis and shut it down if it causes harmful interference."

Consumer interest group Public Knowledge agreed that the boosters can be a boon to Americans, particularly those in rural areas with poor reception. But it called the FCC's regulations a solution that goes only "half way" toward solving the problem.

An original FCC proposal gave consumers the right to purchase any booster that complied with technical rules, and would have done much more to promote a competitive sales market for the boosters, Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld said in Feb. 20 statement.

"Today's order requires subscribers to get consent from their carriers," Feld continued. "That includes requiring the 2 million consumers who previously purchased boosters to get permission from carriers to continue to use a product they purchased legally—with no showing that the existing boosters cause interference."

Felt went on to say that the FCC order also gives carriers the right to restrict brands and models, which means that a family in which members subscribe to different carriers could have to buy multiple boosters where just one would work fine.

"Carriers are free to impose needless 'user fees,' or otherwise make consumers pay twice for the privilege of filling in the dead spots left by the carriers themselves," he said.

Working in consumers' favor, Feld added, is the FCC's promise that in two years' time it will review the rules it established—if the carriers are behaving badly, the FCC may change things.
"We must hope that carriers take this warning seriously," he said, "or that in two years the FCC can find the courage to put consumers before carriers."

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