AT&T, Verizon, others agree to new cell booster rules, but existing 2M users must register

The FCC on Wednesday approved new rules for cell phone boosters, giving booster makers a major win after years of acrimonious debate over the issue. The FCC also managed to get the nation's wireless carriers to agree to the new rules. However, the 2 million wireless customers with existing boosters who have been using the devices to improve their mobile signals will need to register with and get permission from their carriers to continue to use the gadgets.

In its order, the FCC crated new, stringent technical rules for how booster makers need to manufacture the devices. Boosters amplify signals between wireless devices and wireless networks. Under the agency's new regime, boosters for consumers must adhere to what the FCC is calling its Network Protection Standard, which most carriers are agreeing to.

The new development is a marked shift from past battles over boosters. In the past, the CTIA and wireless carriers have tried to ban the sale or use of cell phone boosters, arguing the devices can cause substantial interference in their networks and result in dropped calls and blocked calls, including 911 calls. In addition, operators maintained that finding and fixing interference caused by these boosters is extremely difficult.

Tellingly, the new rules received the seal of approval from CTIA, the Rural Telecommunications Group and the Competitive Carriers Association.

Consumer boosters can be used on most mainstream wireless bands, including cellular, PCS, AWS-1, 700 MHz and ESMR (after rebanding). Further, consumer boosters sold after March 1, 2014, will be marked with a label showing they meet the new standard, according to The Verge. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA have all agreed that boosters with the label will be automatically approved and carriers are giving blanket consent to use them, though they still need to be registered with carriers.

The FCC updated its FAQ on the topic and clarified what people with cell phone boosters now need to be concerned with. Currently, there are no mechanisms for customers to register their existing boosters with carriers. Carriers need to set up a system for doing so by March 1, 2014.

"If a wireless provider or the FCC asks you to turn off your signal booster because it is causing interference to a wireless network, you must turn off your booster and leave it off until the interference problem can be resolved," the FAQ states. "When the new rules go into effect, you will be able to purchase a booster with additional safeguards that protect wireless networks from interference."

Wilson Electronics, a major booster maker, applauded the move. "Wilson Electronics applauds the adoption of FCC certification specifications for consumer cell phone signal boosters, which will eliminate poorly designed products that currently plague the market, and have been a source of cell site interference," Wilson COO Joe Banos said in a statement. "Today's outcome is a major victory not only for our industry, but also for the end users who benefit from added levels of safety, security and satisfaction with their service through the use of signal boosters." AT&T also praised the move.

However, public interest group Public Knowledge called the FCC's move a half-measure that does a disservice to the two million subscribers who already own boosters. "Unfortunately, the FCC has chosen carriers over consumers in setting the rules," said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge. "The initial proposal from the FCC last year would have given consumers the right to purchase whatever boosters that wished that met the technical standards. Today's order requires subscribers to get consent from their carriers. That includes requiring the two million consumers who previously purchased boosters, to get permission from carriers to continue to use a product they purchased legally--with no showing that the existing boosters cause interference."

The FCC's order also details rules for industrial signal boosters designed to cover large areas such as stadiums, airports and tunnels. Industrial signal boosters will continue to fall under the existing authorization process, and must be installed and operated in coordination with licensees. 

For more:
- see this release
- see this Ars Technica article
- see this The Verge article
- see this Public Knowledge post
- see this AT&T blog post

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Article updated Feb. 21 with additional information from the FCC.