FCC plans to OK cellular boosters, despite objections

Rules would override concerns about public safety, commercial network interference

The Federal Communication Commission is proposing new rules that would authorize the regulated use of consumer signal boosters to improve cellular coverage in marginal and rural areas.

The unregulated use of the technology has created interference problems for public safety agencies and commercial wireless carriers, but the FCC decided that, when used properly, the benefits can outweigh the disadvantages by improving wireless service in rural areas — where terrain blocks signals — and in buildings.

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“In addition, signal boosters can provide public safety benefits, for example, by enabling the public to connect to 911 in areas where wireless coverage is deficient or where an adequate communications signal is blocked or shielded,” the commission said in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released April 6. Law enforcement agencies also use the boosters to provide wireless broadband data connections in remote areas where other communications are unavailable or impractical.

The rules are needed because of gaps in the nation’s cellular coverage, the commission said. “Although by one measure, 99.6 percent of the nation’s population is served by one or more mobile voice providers, and more than 98 percent of the nation’s population can now receive ‘advanced’ or ‘3G’ wireless services, coverage gaps exist within and at the fringes of those service areas and continue to pose a problem for residents, businesses, public institutions, visitors, and public safety first responders, particularly in rural areas,” according to the notice.

The proposed rules are the result of petitions filed with the FCC by the boosters industry seeking changes to rules to clarify and regulate the use of boosters, and by carrier representatives seeking clarification on the limits of booster use. The FCC got public comments on the issue in 2010.

“A number of public safety commenters note that signal boosters have caused interference to public safety operations,” the notice says. “The Massachusetts State Police, for example, note an average of 10 instances of interference per year to their public safety networks, which they attribute to signal boosters. The Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department states that it encounters interference due to signal boosters regularly and spends approximately 300 hours and $25,000 each year addressing interference events.”

Carriers also complained of problems with interference from boosters. Verizon Wireless said signal booster interference had degraded service on some channels and cell sites, reducing coverage and shutting down channels, sectors, or entire cell sites. Sprint Nextel said employees sometimes had to drive for hours to identify the source of interference from a booster and U.S. Cellular said that an engineer spent 60 hours over four weeks tracking down the cause of one episode of interference. AT&T detailed an incident in which a mobile signal booster on a yacht caused substantial interference to six cell towers in Florida for 21 hours, causing 2,795 dropped calls and 81,000 blocked or impaired calls.

The commission conceded that “malfunctioning, poorly designed, or improperly installed signal boosters may harm consumers by blocking calls, including E-911 and other emergency calls, and decreasing network coverage and capacity.” However, it concluded that “there is a genuine need for signal boosters to enhance commercial wireless networks,” and that “any increased potential for harmful network interference can be addressed by the specific measures we propose to control, prevent, and, if necessary, resolve harmful interference.”

The rules would define the boosters as a “Citizens Band Radio Service,” which would allow people to use them in licensed spectrum in conjunction with the use of the carriers’ subscription services. Although individuals would not need an FCC license for boosters, the commission is seeking comments on the idea of requiring registration of boosters with a national clearinghouse to help resolve interference problems.

The rules also would limit fixed booster power to five watts per authorized frequency, and six watts for mobile devices. The boosters would have to be self-monitoring and shut down when out of compliance with power restrictions or other regulations. If the device still is malfunctioning after five attempts at restarting, it would be permanently shut down until manually checked.

Operators of fixed boosters would have to coordinate frequency and power levels with carriers. If notified by network operators of problems, users would have to immediately stop operating the boosters.

Instructions for submitting comments on the proposed rules are included in the notice.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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