Imagine you are on a beach somewhere in Florida, relaxing and, perhaps, sipping a margarita.  Naturally, you want to call your friends back in D.C. to gloat.  But your cell call drops.  Why?  A luxury yacht named New Frontier just entered the port.   How does that work, you ask?  Well, this luxury yacht has been using a signal booster to get a stronger cell signal when out at sea.  Unfortunately, these boosters can cause massive interference to commercial and public safety cell systems, so that while New Frontier’s signal gets through, other users experience dropped calls or degraded service.

This isn’t just a hypothetical situation. It actually happened back in November 2007 when the signal booster New Frontier was using caused severe harmful interference to six AT&T towers in Florida for 21 hours.  It led to 2,795 dropped calls and 81,000 blocked or impaired calls.  Troubling, huh?  We thought so.

But boosters are not limited to use on boats.  They are sold for residential use, office use, and use in cars and motor homes.  In response to a Public Notice on the topic the FCC issued in January 2010, the Commission has received reams of documentation about the harm that boosters cause to consumer and public safety communications, including blocking E911 calls and interfering with the accuracy of E911 location information.  The FCC has been aware of this problem for years thanks to a white paper CTIA released in 2006. And we filed a complaint at the FCC against a particular booster manufacturer in April 2009.  That complaint is still pending.  

As more and more consumers use cell phones – and use them more intensively – spectrum becomes scarce so carriers are constantly trying to get more use out of the same spectrum.  AT&T has invested billions of dollars to upgrade its network to meet the unprecedented demand.  But the boosters problem has persisted.

Under the current procedures at the FCC, a carrier’s only recourse when identifying booster interference is to ask an FCC  field engineer to issue an enforcement letter against an individual consumer operating a booster without a license or carrier approval.  But boosters can be difficult to track down, and the interference can stop and start.  Trying to find an interfering booster is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  And an enforcement action against a consumer (who had no idea that the booster could cause interference or that they could be subject to an enforcement action) is not a great outcome for anyone: the carrier, the FCC or, especially, the consumer.

AT&T and other industry players have asked the FCC to take a comprehensive approach on boosters, one that allows for enforcement against the manufacturers who sell these devices to consumers, as they are in the best position to ensure that their products don’t cause interference to other users.

Earlier today, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to examine rules for booster operation.  Although we’re still reviewing the NPRM, we are hopeful that it will provide some clarity to the rules of the road.

As we have said before, there must be a way to take action against manufacturers who distribute devices that cause interference.  The manufacturer, and not the consumer, is in the position to know whether their device complies with the Commission’s rules.  The FCC also must conduct consumer outreach so that consumers know that the use of a booster is at their own risk.  And we are encouraged that the FCC is proposing to require consumer disclosures on marketing materials, devices and packaging.  Such measures are needed to prevent consumers from getting an unfair and unwelcomed surprise with their booster purchase – a letter from an FCC field agent telling them they can’t lawfully operate the device they were just sold.

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