Docket 10-4: "FCC is Finally Moving on Signal Booster Use" Urgent Communications, 1/13/10
On January 6, FCC at long last started to take action on the long standing issue of cellular "signal boosters" or bidirectional amplifiers. The current management can't be blamed too much for inaction because they inherited this mess and are at least taking action to start solving it. But there are key lessons to be learned here on both FCC procedures and the cost of inaction to many different parties.
Here are some excerpts from the public notice initiating this docket:
By this notice, we seek comment on three Petitions for Rulemaking and two Petitions for Declaratory Ruling (collectively, Petitions) regarding the proper use of signal boosters on frequencies licensed under Parts 22, 24, 27, and 90 of the Commission’s Rules.
On August 18, 2005, Bird Technologies, Inc. (Bird Technologies) filed a Petition for Rulemaking to amend section 90.219 to outline specific technical and operational requirements for the use of signal boosters by Part 90 licensees.
On November 2, 2007, CTIA, the Wireless Association (CTIA) filed a Petition for Declaratory Ruling (CTIA Petition) regarding the proper use of signal boosters in Commercial Mobile Radio Services (CMRS).
On September 25, 2008, Jack Daniel DBA Jack Daniel Company filed a Petition for Declaratory Ruling seeking clarification of the Commission’s rules regarding signal boosters.
On October 23, 2009, the DAS Forum (a membership section of PCIA-The Wireless Infrastructure Association) filed a Petition for Rulemaking in response to the CTIA Petition stating that a rulemaking proceeding is needed to address the marketing, installation, and operation of signal boosters used in the Cellular Radiotelephone and Personal Communications Services.
On November 3, 2009, Wilson Electronics, Inc. (“Wilson”) filed a Petition for Rulemaking asking the Commission to commence a proceeding to amend Part 20 of its rules to establish standards for the certification of signal boosters for subscriber use on CMRS networks by developing equipment certification requirements to ensure boosters are available to the public.
So FCC has a series of petition on a technical wireless issue going back almost 5 years. None of these have been on public notice or were even publicly disclosed by FCC. Indeed, there was little indication other than press coverage that this issue existed. While the CTIA petition was on its website, the other petitions were nowhere to be seen. It is for this reason that your blogger has urged FCC to publish lists of all petitions that have been filed. Note that this suggestion is doing rather well in the voting on the FCC reboot FCC site. (Feel free to add your own vote!) Some quiet staff review time to decide whether a petition is redundant or not within the Commission's jurisdiction makes sense, but there should be weeks, not years!
We note that the NPSTC (a well respected federation of 13 public safety member organizations) 1/06 Newsletter had a lead article entitled "In-Building Coverage BDA Rule Changes Needed Today". Yet the previous FCC management was unable to act. So 2 private firms as well as CTIA and NPSTC urged Commission action years ago and nothing happened.
The recent PN says
When properly installed, these devices, which can either be fixed or mobile, can help consumers, wireless service providers, and public safety first responders by expanding the area of reliable service to unserved or weak signal areas. However, as articulated in the Petitions, improper installation and use of these devices can interfere with network operations and cause interference to a range of communication services.
This is partially correct. But the issue is not just installation. Some manufacturers' amplifiers are designed to prevent oscillations which are the dominant cause of interference to cellular systems. Wilson Electronics states in its petition that all of its amplifiers have used such a design since 2006. But because of FCC inaction this is not a universal practice. So the result of inaction on the CTIA petition has been both the continuing sale of designs that are capable of causing interference, the loss of sales to manufacturers making better (more expensive) amplifiers, and capital formation problems for new companies that seek to make noninterferring equipment. So it has been a lose/lose situation for everyone involved except those making cheap equipment capable of causing interference.
Of course, if CTIA and its membership had been more pragmatic and tried to negotiate a compromise with the amplifier manufacturers to ask FCC jointly for reasonable technical standards then this problem would be much closer to solution. So there is enough blame to go around.
But the key thing to learn here is that the 3000 pages of FCC Rules deal with a highly technical jurisdiction and that they need fine tuning on a regular basis to address problems that were not considered when they were written or new technologies that might be implicitly forbidden. This is not as exciting to the 8th Floor as other issues like broadband and broadcast ownership and content but it also needs timely attention on a continuing basis. The Commission must find a way to keep working on all parts of its jurisdiction all the time and not get sidetracked by the problem du jour. So while Docket 10-4 has now started on its way to resolution, we must find a way to prevent future logjams like this.