FCC proposes rules for cell phone signal boosters

Rather than approving a CTIA request to ban cell phone signal boosters, the FCC at its regular meeting proposed tighter rules for how the products can be used.

In addition to mandating that carriers allow data roaming , the Federal Communications Commission used its regular meeting this week to propose tighter regulations for cell phone signal boosters.

The decision, which actually came yesterday, is part of an ongoing discussion within the wireless industry over whether cell phone signal boosters interfere with carrier networks. Rather than approving a request by the CTIA to ban the sale of signal boosters outright, the FCC issued (PDF) a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes guidelines for using boosters safely and effectively.

"Our goal in this proceeding is to facilitate the development and deployment of well-designed signal boosters that do not interfere with wireless networks," the NPRM states. "The record reflects that there is a genuine need for signal boosters to enhance commercial wireless networks."

Supporters claim signal boosters serve a vital public role by enhancing cell phone service in undeserved, indoor, and rural locations. Yet, carriers argue that boosters interfere with cell phone towers and networks and may result in more dropped calls for subscribers. Unlike the carrier-supplied femtocells, boosters like the Wilson Electronics Sleek and the Wi-Ex zBoost work across all carrier networks.

In a statement (PDF), FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the FCC will work to create technical standards that address the coverage needs of consumers and the interference concerns raised by carriers. "This Notice of Proposed Rulemaking takes a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to promoting the development and deployment of properly designed and installed signal boosters," she said. "These devices have demonstrated they can help address the coverage gaps that exist within the wireless service areas in both rural and urban environments."

Among other things, the FCC has proposed in its NPRM that mobile and fixed boosters meet the following technical standards.

  • Detect feedback or oscillation (between its antenna and the cell phone's antenna) and deactivate within 10 seconds of detection.
  • Self-monitor their operation to ensure compliance with FCC technical rules and shut off automatically within 10 seconds or less if they are not operating as required.
  • Detect when a tower is close by and deactivate automatically.

A spokesman for Wilson Electronics, a Utah-based manufacturer of in-vehicle and in-building boosters, praised the FCC's decision. "We're excited about the process and to be able to sit down with carriers to discuss the proper standards," Jonathan Bacon, Wilson's director of marketing, told CNET. "There is a need for boosters...[and] tightening specifications will get rid of the problem products."

Though the FCC will seek industry and public comment on the rules for the next 45 days, the CTIA continues to express reservations. "While we have yet to read the NPRM, we remain concerned that poorly manufactured or improperly installed boosters can do much more harm than good for both consumers and public safety officials," the wireless industry's lobbying arm said in a statement. "We hope that as the FCC moves forward with this proceeding, it [will keep] these actual, not theoretical, cases of harm in mind."

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About the author

Senior Managing Editor Kent German leads the CNET Reviews editors in San Francisco. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he still writes about the wireless industry and occasionally his passion for commercial aviation.

 

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