The FCC is currently looking for public comments relating to 5 petitions it has received centering around the issue of signal boosters on wireless networks. Signal booster manufacturers such as Wilson Electronics argue that wireless networks should have open access to signal boosters, providing they adhere to standards that should be set and monitored by the FCC. Large network operators such as Verizon and AT&T would prefer the use of signal boosters to be controlled by them and not allow any 3rd party boosters on their network. Smaller networks are not quite as bold – some of which market signal boosters directly to their customers – perhaps viewing signal boosters as a way to compete with the giants of the industry. The whole situation has parallels with open network initiatives across the board and the 584 comments it has racked up (to date) indicate that a lot is at stake.
The FCC very clearly notes that signal boosters unarguably can have a positive affect, saying boosters “can help consumers, wireless service providers, and public safety first responders by expanding the area of reliable service to unserved or weak signal areas” and that current rules, “allow the use of signal enhancing devices” as part of the licensee agreement. However, they also note that improperly installed devices can cause interference on the network. Its clear that signal boosters are an important part of network development and cellular networks make extensive use of them when extending wireless coverage.
So interference is clearly the crux of the issue. Both sides of the argument make different technical claims and inevitably these arguments will go on, but is it possible to quantify the prevalence of interference? In its public comments, AT&T claim in the past 3 years it recorded 87 incidents in South Florida, where many boosters are used in the yachting community. Extrapolating this nationwide we might estimate instances of interference number in the few thousands. Wilson Electronics, on their part, state that they alone have manufactured more than 2 million signal boosters since 2001. According to these figures it is perhaps one in a few thousand signal boosters that might cause interference. A figure no doubt that could be reduced further if standards for devices were raised and greater collaboration and communication could be had between network operators and device manufacturers. Indeed, in Verizon’s comments they cite just four instances of interference from Wilson Electronics’ amplifiers nationwide.
Also at stake is the use of signal enhancers by emergency services. In the comments to the FCC petitions many police departments, fire-crews and other first responders have stated their requirement for readily available signal boosters. Numerous public safety officials have stated that they simply could not do the same job without using signal boosters. Also common are rural network customer on the fringe of coverage who rely on their cell phones for 911 emergency calls. For them a signal repeater is their only possible method of communication with family and emergency services.
What is clear from the content and number of comments is that the issue is contentious. The network operators have a right and a responsibility to ensure that their networks are not negatively impacted by user devices, but the FCC also has a responsibility to ensure that this is not abused and that if there is a solution that improves networks far greater than it impedes them, it should act swiftly to support it.
Ever since the Carterfone ruling the philosophy of the FCC has involved a commitment to competition in the marketplace. If everyone agrees that signal boosters can be positively used to improve a cellular network do we really want them to be controlled inside a walled garden by the networks or would we prefer to enable the same innovation that led to the invention of answering machines, faxes & modems after the Carterfone ruling? Also, is it not important to have some kind of quantitative investigation into how the instances of interference compare to the number of signal boosters being used by consumers, and by how much this would be further reduced by the introduction of unified and federally regulated specifications? Perhaps one day properly regulated signal boosters will be an important customer retention tool, used as a deal sweetener to keep wireless customers paying their large monthly premiums.