FCC Adopts New Rules Promoting the Use of Signal Boosters to Enhance Wireless Coverage
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted new rules enabling consumers and enterprises to improve the wireless services they receive through the use of signal boosters that extend the range of wireless signals and bridge gaps in wireless coverage.
Although signal boosters have been commercially available for several years, until now there has been a great deal of uncertainty regarding how – or even whether – signal boosters could be used legally under the FCC’s rules. Through these new rules, the FCC has sought to establish a clear regulatory framework that will allow wireless users to take advantage of the benefits that signal boosters offer while at the same time ensuring that the use of signal boosters does not result in interference to wireless networks and other wireless users.
The FCC’s new rules establish two classes of signal boosters – “Consumer” and “Industrial” – with distinct regulatory requirements that must be met in order for these boosters to be used on a commercial wireless carrier’s network. In addition, the FCC has adopted new technical requirements and equipment certification procedures for signal boosters, as well as procedures for allowing existing boosters to remain on the market.
Finally, the FCC has revised its technical and operating rules for the use of signal boosters on private wireless networks operated by public safety and by enterprises and other organizations for their internal communications needs.
Consumer Signal Boosters
“Consumer Signal Boosters” are devices marketed and sold to individuals to be used “out of the box” to improve their personal wireless coverage in a limited area (such as a home, car, boat, or recreational vehicle). Consumer Signal Boosters must comply with the FCC’s newly-adopted “Network Protection Standard,” a set of technical requirements intended to protect wireless networks and other wireless users from interference or degradation of service. These devices must also be clearly labeled in accordance with specific labeling requirements.
Of greatest significance, a Consumer Signal Booster can only be used if the consumer has some form of consent from his or her wireless service provider. The four nationwide wireless carriers (AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile) and numerous regional and rural wireless carriers have already committed to give “blanket” consent to the use of any Consumer Signal Booster that meets the Network Protection Standard discussed above. Wireless carriers may also choose to give “blanket” consent on a model-by-model or other basis. It is important to note, however, that wireless carriers are not required to consent to the use of signal boosters on their networks; their grant of consent is strictly voluntary.
In addition, consumers will be required to register their signal booster directly with their wireless service provider. All service providers who allow signal boosters on their networks must have a free registration system in place for their subscribers by March 1, 2014. The registration requirement applies to all signal boosters being used by consumers, including existing boosters that are already in use.
According to the FCC, the consent and registration requirements for Consumer Signal Boosters are necessary to ensure that wireless service providers are able to maintain sufficient control over their spectrum as required by their licenses. However, the FCC has also stated that it will monitor the behavior of service providers with respect to signal boosters and may take further action if the agency finds that providers are refusing to give timely and reasonable consideration to signal booster consent requests.
In addition to the registration requirement, consumers who use a signal booster: (i) must use the device only with manufacturer-specified antennas, cables, and couplings; (ii) must not deactivate any of the features required by the Network Protection Standard; and (iii) must immediately shut down the signal booster if notified that the booster is causing harmful interference.
Industrial Signal Boosters
“Industrial Signal Boosters” are devices designed to be installed by FCC licensees or by qualified installers and which are typically used to serve multiple users and cover larger areas, such as stadiums, airports, office buildings, hospitals, and campuses. The FCC’s new rules maintain the existing authorization framework for these types of boosters, meaning that the operation of Industrial Signal Boosters will continue to require a valid FCC license or the express consent of the spectrum licensee (i.e., the commercial wireless carrier or private network operator whose signal is being “boosted”). Nevertheless, the FCC did state that it will expect licensees “to act in good faith” when responding to requests for consent and to “process such requests expeditiously.”
The FCC’s new rules do, however, impose a new labeling requirement on Industrial Signal Boosters. The required labels must clearly warn that the device is not a consumer device, that it is designed for installation by FCC licensees or qualified installers, that an FCC license or express licensee consent is required to operate the device, and that unauthorized use may result in significant penalties. The FCC determined that this labeling requirement is necessary to minimize the risk that Industrial Signal Boosters might be purchased and used – erroneously or otherwise – by individual consumers.
Signal Boosters on Private Wireless Networks
The FCC’s new rules also address the use of signal boosters on private wireless networks that provide private land mobile and public safety radio services under Part 90 of the FCC’s Rules. Although the new rules leave much of the existing framework for Part 90 signal boosters unchanged, the FCC did take certain measures to revise and clarify the specific requirements for signal boosters on private wireless networks.
First, because signal boosters for private wireless networks are not intended for consumer use, the FCC has classified these boosters as Industrial Signal Boosters. Accordingly, signal boosters for Part 90 services will be subject to the same labeling requirement as other Industrial Signal Boosters, as described above. In addition, the FCC has modified its Part 90 rules to make clear that non-licensees who seek to operate signal boosters must have the consent of the licensee whose signals they intend to amplify.
The most significant changes are with respect to the treatment of Class A (narrowband) and Class B (wideband) signal boosters under Part 90. The FCC has clarified that Class A boosters may be used on either a fixed or a mobile basis, but Class B boosters may be used on a fixed basis only. The FCC will also require that existing and future installations of Class B boosters be registered on a central FCC database by November 1, 2014.
In order to encourage signal booster manufacturers to work quickly to incorporate the FCC’s new technical specifications and labeling requirements into their product lines, the FCC has adopted a two-step transition process for equipment certification.
First, as of February 20, 2013, the FCC will no longer accept applications for equipment certification for Consumer Signal Boosters or Industrial Signal Boosters that do not comply with the new rules and will cease any further certification of devices that do not meet these rules. Second, from March 1, 2014, onward, all signal boosters sold and marketed in the United States will be required to meet the new technical and labeling rules.
In adopting its new rules, the FCC noted that no signal boosters on the market today meet the agency’s new requirements. The FCC clarified that signal boosters that have already been certified, are already in use, or are already on the market may still be operated, but emphasized that (1) they may only be used with the wireless provider’s consent; and (2) wireless providers are not required to consent to the use of any existing signal booster.