Last month, the FCC announced its biggest set of proposed changes to the 2013 rules on cell phone signal boosters. If the FCC moves ahead with the proposed changes in the coming months, there will be meaningful changes to the signal booster products industry.
The announcement comes in two parts:
Report and Order
This part of the release from the FCC announced only one change effective immediately. It removes the “personal use” restriction on “provider specific” boosters.
In 2013, the FCC divided cell boosters into two categories: provider-specific boosters and industrial boosters. Industrial boosters require carrier permission prior to operation. Consumer cell boosters are further divided in two categories:
1. Provider-specific — narrowband devices that only work on a single cell carrier signal.
2. Wideband — devices that amplify entire cellular bands, regardless of carrier.
Wilson Electronics initiated the petition for the FCC to remove the “personal use” restriction in December 2016, and the petition was met with almost 100 percent support from the industry. The “personal use” restriction led to much confusion since it was enacted in 2013. The term is poorly defined and hasn’t led to any real-world changes to hardware or device use.
In this report and order, the FCC decided to remove that restriction on the “provider-specific” class of boosters.
What is more interesting about the FCC release is the second part.
Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
This section seeks feedback from the public and industry on four proposed changes to the signal booster rules:
1. Streamlining booster rules to make embedding boosters in vehicles easier
2. Removing the “personal use” restriction on wideband boosters
3. Authorizing non-subscribers to operate consumer-grade signal boosters
4. Expanding the booster regulations to allow amplification of three additional frequency bands
Addition of Extra Bands
Since the rules were originally put in place in 2013, the FCC has licensed multiple new bands for use by carriers. But the booster rules haven’t been updated to allow boosting of those bands. In the announcement last month, the FCC sought comment on allowing consumer boosters to amplify three additional bands. Specifically, they’re considering allowing boosters on the 600 MHz, WCS and BRS/EBS bands.
For signal boosters to remain relevant, new bands must be added and approved for boosting by the FCC. This is particularly important as new 5G technology begins to be rolled-out.
5G networks will use mmWave bands that operate at a much higher frequency than current bands. These higher frequencies will have an even harder time penetrating concrete, glass and other building materials. With the attenuation levels at these frequencies, it will be nearly impossible for the mmWave signal to penetrate into buildings.
If 5G is to make it indoors, updating the regulations around signal boosting is critical.
Embedded Boosters for Vehicles
With complicated computers in cars today and self-driving cars around the corner, embedding boosters in vehicles is starting to make much more sense. Trucks and RVs are already embedding cell phone signal boosters. Next up, we’ll likely see boosters in more consumer vehicles.
The FCC is considering allowing warning labels to be placed in the automobile’s manual and is asking the public for ideas around how registration and relationships with carriers might work.
Removal of ‘Personal Use’ Restriction for Broadband Boosters
This is one of the most exciting proposed changes to the FCC rules. The “personal use” restriction isn’t well-defined and removing it will help clarify that boosters can be used in applications. In the documentation from the FCC, they ask for comments about any technical issues that might arise from removing this restriction.
The FCC notes there hasn’t been a single report from carriers of consumer boosters causing issues. This seems to be the FCC doing its due diligence before making a much-needed change to the rules.
Authorizing Non-Subscribers to Operate Consumer-Grade Signal Boosters
Right now, you need an account with a cell carrier in order to operate a cell phone signal booster. The FCC notes “interference to wireless networks [is] almost nonexistent” from consumer boosters licensed with the Network Protection Standard it issued with its 2013 rules. If this rule does change, it will give non-carrier subscribers the ability to purchase and register a booster with a carrier.
Sina Khanifar is the co-founder of OpenSignal and RepeaterStore.
Filed Under: Industry regulations