Interview: Wilson Electronics on FCC’s potential cell booster ban

For some people, cellular signal boosters are an invaluable tool to help connect to their wireless network of choice, but not everyone views signal amplifiers in the same light. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is mulling a possible ban/restriction on cellular network boosters that are used to amplify wireless cellular signal, and is looking for public comment on the issue.

US wireless carriers have commented about how cell boosters are causing interference and disrupting their wireless networks. They essentially claim that cell boosters are generally bad for wireless network health and performance, and ultimately hurt consumers looking for reliable wireless service.

The flip side of the argument has booster makers, like Wilson Electronics, claiming that boosters aren’t detrimental to wireless networks, as long as they are designed well and meet strict certification standards.

We had a chance to sit down with Wilson Electronics’ COO Joe Banos to chat about what potential problems cell boosters pose to wireless networks, how the FCC can ensure that boosters are safe, and what legal ramifications a booster ban would have on the overall US wireless ecosystem. If you’re at all interested in cell boosters, you’re not going to want to miss this.

Interview after the jump!

What is it about cell booster technology that makes them potentially disruptive to wireless networks?

The #1 issue is oscillations.  This is like in a PA system when the microphone is too close to the speaker or volume turned up too high, u hear a whistle (feedback).  A booster can do the same thing when the outside and inside antennas are placed too close to ea other.  Many amps out there have no (zero!) oscillation protection, so if they start oscillating (feedback) they could cause interference to a nearby site which would then not be able to hear people trying to place calls on their phones.

The #2 most common problem is caused by a booster that is purchased for improving a signal from a carrier whose site is far away, yet there may be a site of a competing carrier near by (like a block or 2).  In this case, though the amp is working and amplifying the far site, the near site belonging to another carrier may be ‘overloaded” by the signal going to the far site from the booster.

A properly designed booster can detect these conditions and shut itself down.

So are your cell boosters designed to prevent the kind of network interference that carriers are afraid of?

Wilson has patented oscillation detection and shut down.  If one of our amps oscillates, it is turned off within a few milliseconds.  A red steady light then tells the user that an oscillation occurred and antennas most likely need to be separated.  Once this is done, the power is turned off and back on.  If no oscillation occurs, a green light comes on to signify that all is ok.

Wilson also has circuitry which senses a nearby site and likewise immediately shuts off the amp (even if not oscillating) and lights a red flashing light to indicate the nearby site problem.  The problem is sometimes rectified by using a directional antenna.  Sometimes the other carrier’s site is too close and a booster can’t be used.  This does not happen often (maybe 2 % of the situations where a booster is being used) but if it does, we shut the amp down.

Given that carriers can’t possibly cover every square mile of every city in America with wireless service, you’d think cell boosters are helping more than hurting.

Some day the carriers will realize that properly designed Boosters are customer satisfaction/customer retention tools.  What’s sadder is that they will not have a dialog of any sort with us instead of working together to see that boosters can be transparent to the network.  If boosters were sold at cell stores maybe there would not be a need for silly “network war” ads by AT&T and Verizon.  Boosters would make data and voice service more robust.  Boosters can also be a great tool for bringing wireless broadband to rural areas and would save carriers from having to build sites in sparsely populated areas.

Are there any statistics that show how helpful cell boosters have been to consumers, or to flip the coin, how damaging cell boosters have been to carriers’ networks?

What problems have occurred with Wilson products are from earlier designs, legacy products.  If we ever hear of a problem being caused by a legacy amp, we immediately exchange it for the latest generation which incorporates the protections.  Last year we identified 8 complaints out of quite a few thousand amps sold. I’d venture to say that as a whole there are more cell site failures caused by either the carrier’s equipment or power failures, than by Wilson amps.  This year, because of the safeguards we are now able to design in, I expect the problems to be close to non existent (for us anyway).

It seems to me that there are open access issues at stake here.

Yes, I feel that the real issue is that the carriers want to maintain control of devices – revenue being a big driver. My opinion is that the “boosters interfere” argument is just a “crutch” the carriers are using to further fight open access.

On the one hand, consumers should be allowed to decide what equipment they want to use on whatever network they choose. On the other hand, there’s the need for carriers to ensure reliable wireless service to all consumers. What do you think the FCC can do to ensure consumer choice without hurting quality of service?

The FCC certification standards have been inadequate.  There is equipment out there that should not have been FCC certified, and are giving the good boosters a bad reputation.  The FCC needs to mandate that any booster submitted for certification be required to have some method of effective oscillation and overload detection and shut down.  This is the basis of our petition to the FCC [Docket 10-4].  Today’s FCC testing for certification does not check for these 2 protections.  Some boosters only amplify from the cell site and not back to the site.  these products are a fraud.  We are also asking that 2 way amplification be required.

Back in the days when telecom companies forbid the use of telecom equipment on their network that wasn’t provided by the telecom carrier themselves, there were legal rulings that required these companies to allow the use of third-party hardware. Can cell boosters be considered network devices? What, if any, legal precedents are relevant to this issue?

The most important precedent is the Carterphone and Hush A Phone decisions.

[Editor’s note: you can find more info here –]

There’s also the issue of enforcement. How does the FCC propose to enforce a ban on cell boosters?

Excellent point.  Neither the FCC nor the carriers have the wherewithal to enforce a ban on boosters.  I don’t mean to sound silly, but if boosters are outlawed, only the outlaws will be selling boosters.  Why? Because there is a tremendous appetite for signal improvement by consumers.  If made illegal, legitimate manufacturers such as ourselves may go out of business.  Good product will be replaced by cheap and not so great product sold on the web by people who are here today and gone tomorrow, with no or flaky contact info.

  • It is a very interesting interview of Wilson Electronics. Many interesting facts has been revealed from this interview. FCC’s potential cell phone booster ban has created many issues and this is one of the immediate response from Wilson Electronics.

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