FCC gives cautious go-ahead for signal boosters

Can you hear me now?

The US comms regulator looks set to permit consumer-owned boosters, including mobile ones, despite the industry's adamant opposition and predictions of worse service for all if the rules go ahead.

While indisputably illegal in the UK, cell boosters have slipped between the rules in the USA where many companies sell them to customers looking to improve their cellular coverage. They often achieve that, but at the cost of confusing the macro network, knocking other customers off entirely and draining everyone's battery, not to mention putting lives at risk if the operators are to be believed.

Cell boosters are basically mains-powered mobile phones with big antennas, enabling them to pick up a signal that a handset can't. The booster then operates as a base station allowing nearby handsets to connect, and routes their calls over the cellular network. The problem is that cellular boosters aren't regulated, and the network operators reckon they can't be used safely without hugely restrictive regulations at the very least.

This is not what the FCC has in mind; the regulator's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (55-page PDF/354 KB, quite entertaining), which is open for comment for the next 45 days, suggests some form of power management would be in order (requiring a booster to shut down when the macro network signal is strong) and that devices should be limited to working with a single network operator rather than blatting their signal across the bands used by all American operators – but that's about it.

This isn't nearly enough for AT&T, which reckons it should approve every bit of hardware that broadcasts on the frequencies it licenses. In discussion with the regulator, AT&T also asked for GPS to be embedded in every booster, and that boosters be required to dynamically report their location to the operator who could then adjust the power, or even shut down the booster, on a whim.

All that would make the kit a good deal more expensive, and provide the operator with the opportunity to delay approval as long as it likes, and then reduce the operational power to make the booster all but useless – if it so desired.

But the operators cite the Massachusetts State Police, which reports an average of 10 instances a year where police radios are disrupted by someone using a signal booster. Orange County apparently spends $25,000 annually tracking down interference with radios belonging to its sheriff's department. AT&T even records one incident when a booster on a yacht moving around the Florida coast "lasted for 21 hours, and led to 2,795 dropped calls and 81,000 blocked or impaired calls".

The other problems relate to triangulation for E911: locating a caller requiring emergency assistance. A phone using a booster might appear twice on the network (once as the phone, once as the booster) making triangulation, which is based on signal strength, impossible. Boosters may also appear as interference to other handsets, particularly on GSM networks, pushing them to increase their signal and thus prematurely draining the battery.

The converse argument is that if the network operators built out decent coverage then the question would be moot, and punters should be free to spend their own money to get a better signal. Some operators will now provide femtocells, which use broadband internet access for the backhaul and are clever enough not to interfere with the macro network, but those only work where there's reliable internet access – and they certainly won't work in a car, where many Americans like to have a boosted signal.

The operators do seem to accept that some sort of compromise has to be reached, and that their initial positions are just that: points from which concessions can be made. But if you feel strongly that cellular boosters should be freely available, or that those who paid for the frequencies should have absolute control over them, then do let the FCC know. ®

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