The mobile-operator and public-safety communities have been waiting for nearly five years for the FCC to act on petitions regarding the proper use of cellular signal boosters — otherwise known as cellular amplifiers — which increasingly are being used to amplify signals in areas with poor cellular coverage. It appears now that the FCC finally may be willing to initiate a rulemaking process or issue a declaratory ruling on the issue, as the commission last week requested comment on these petitions by Feb. 22.

Public-safety and mobile-operator advocates, among them the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), are alarmed over the improper installation and use of signal boosters that have the power to interfere with cellular and public-safety transmissions for miles by creating noise feedback in the radio frequency transmission.

While not spelled out specifically in these petitions, the crux of the issue is whether signal-booster manufacturers have the right to sell such devices over the Internet and directly to end users. Signal boosters that are used for in-building communications typically are deployed by in-building communications experts with the blessing of the operator whose signal they are boosting. But companies like Wilson Electronics have been selling the boosters directly to end users, including public-safety users, without permission from operators.

Wilson recently took its case to the FCC this past summer to argue that cellular amplifiers are in need of some type of FCC certification, but it rejects the notion that operators should be allowed to have them "carrier certified." Last year the company filed a petition for rulemaking asking the commission to amend its rules to establish standards for signal-booster certification so that they can be made available to the public.

In an interview I had in September with Joe Banos, chief operating officer of Wilson Electronics, he blamed the interference problems on cheap amplifiers from China and other regions that don't have any standards.

The FCC already requires cellular-amplifier users to obtain permission, but it appears there is little enforcement. Wilson has argued that the commission already has a type-acceptance program in place for approving devices, and believes the FCC could add more parameters to the well-established program to eliminate oscillation, in-band noise-floor increase and uni-directional amplification — the primary reasons for network interference today.

The DAS (Distributed Antenna System) Forum appears to be on Wilson's side, asking the FCC to initiate a rulemaking on the sale, installation and operation of signal boosters. It also wants the commission to determine the best way to resolve interference issues without stifling the sale of signal boosters.

Still, there are three other petitions that ask the FCC to tighten up its rules. In 2005, Bird Technologies filed a petition for rulemaking that asked the FCC to spell out specific technical and operational requirements and to ensure that the devices are used with full knowledge of operators — and that consumers understand they need to obtain permission.

In 2007, CTIA weighed in on the issue, asking for a declaratory ruling on the proper use of signal boosters. And in-building communications expert Jack Daniel also filed a petition for a declaratory ruling, saying the commission's rules are being misconstrued.

"Manufacturers can sell these without violating the law. The FCC only enforces penalties on the user, and manufacturers can say that it is the fault of end users because they used it illegally," Daniel told me in an interview late last year.

That means a sheriff in rural Montana who might be driving around with an amplifier in his trunk because he desperately needs coverage is violating FCC regulations.

While it's amazing to me that the prior commission sat on its hands for so long on this issue, it’s not as cut and dry as it might seem. On one hand, the FCC can change its rules to require certification as Wilson wants, which would make signal boosters available to anyone suffering from poor coverage — which includes many public-safety entities.

On the other hand, carriers have paid a lot of money for their spectrum rights, and they have the right to decide how someone manipulates their signals. Is education of the end user on what the FCC’s rules require the answer? Would that really stop the illegal use of these devices? Not likely, say insiders, because securing the proper certification would result in extra cost for the end user, e.g., license-coordination fees. It’s more likely that they’ll willingly skirt the rules as opposed to being ignorant about them.

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