The relationship between manufacturers of cell phone signal boosters and wireless operators has, historically speaking, been akin to the Hatfields and McCoys.
For years, the two sides have gone back and forth on whether the devices should be legal, how they should be certified and the extent to which they can harm a wireless network by causing interference.
Some operators say the devices can pose a significant threat to their network if they malfunction, and CTIA continues to push the FCC to declare that it is illegal to operate a booster without a license, effectively cutting off most consumers from owning a booster. Booster makers say the devices can be crucial to subscribers in remote areas with a weak signal and will pose no threat to wireless networks if properly engineered.
In light of the two sides’ longstanding disagreement, the collaboration on specifications for the devices between Verizon Wireless and top cell phone signal booster maker Wilson Electronics – a collaboration that resulted in the two companies actually agreeing on how to get the devices safely into the marketplace – is remarkable.
The companies’ partnership began after the FCC introduced proposed rules on certifying boosters in April that encouraged booster manufacturers and wireless operators to work together on specifications.
The proposal brought both sides to the table to hash out their differences, and yesterday Wilson Electronics and Verizon Wireless submitted a joint proposal on specifications for cell phone signal boosters.
Wireless Week talked to Wilson Electronics COO Joe Banos about what the specifications contain, how the FCC’s proposed rules have changed its relationship with the wireless industry and where it goes from here. Following is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Wireless Week: What are some of the key aspects of the specifications you worked out with Verizon Wireless?
Joe Banos: They define the broad protection techniques that we have been advocating. It’s going one step further, it’s drilling down on the specifics. It’s one thing to say we want to be able to shut down the amplifier when we’re close to the cell site, another thing is translating that to technical terms that can be then translated to a certification test that a booster would go through.
The beauty of this is the exchange with Verizon. It was very positive and was done in an incredible air of cooperation.
WW: Obviously, one of things you’ve been seeking to do is protect wireless networks from interference. Could you talk to me about how the specifications protect wireless operators from interference potentially caused by cell phone signal boosters?
Banos: The first and most prevalent one is oscillation. Oscillation is similar to a public address system where a microphone gets too close to the speaker, it’s feedback. In an RF amplifier, you get a bunch of radio frequency noise that could block access to a cell site by other wireless subscribers because you’re becoming a big noise generator. That’s an oscillation.
We have a technique that we’ve developed – and there are many ways of doing it, it doesn’t have to be the Wilson way – that Verizon looked at quite closely and they felt comfortable with. We can sense an oscillation very quickly and shut the booster down.
There are always two antennas in a booster system; one that talks to a cell site and one that more or less talks to your cell phone. When you put the two antennas too close together, you have an oscillation. It’s an installation issue. That’s probably the most ominous one of all. The rest are things like not overloading a cell site either when you drive close to your carrier or another carrier’s cell site – we have ways of detecting a cell site or even a public safety radio site and know to turn the amplifier down – or in a building system you put up a booster to talk to your carrier’s far away cell site, but your carrier actually has a tower or antenna right across the street from you. You could again blanket them with signal, overload them and make it difficult for other people to get in.
We’ve developed specifications with Verizon that when implemented into a booster would keep that from happening. Without drilling down too deeply, which we do in the specifications attached to our joint letter, there are ways of limiting the amount of noise a booster puts out such that carriers would be comfortable with the thermal noise that would be amplified. There’s nothing new that was invented here.
WW: So just to clarify, your specifications do allow wireless operators to shut down malfunctioning boosters that are harming their network?
Banos: No. We maintain that if a booster is shown to adhere to the specifications that we’re turning in, that’s not needed. It’s just that the certification process was never meant for boosters. Now we have a certification process.
Things like television sets, microwaves are certified on the amount of noise they can put out. So once they’re certified, there’s no need for, as an analogy, an FM station to be able to monitor how your microwave is making noise. We feel there’s no need.
WW: But not everyone agrees with that. I looked at T-Mobile’s filing and they think that wireless operators should be able to shut down those types of boosters. You say you don’t think there will be a need for it once theses specifications go into effect, but why not have that safety net in place?
Banos: Because it would raise prices and in my opinion, it’s a control issue by the carriers, which is what this has been about since day one. How about being able to shut down your phone? Your phone has a more likely probability of going rogue than a booster. Obviously, we have some very bright engineers on both sides that sat down at the table and looked at this very closely. The consensus was that if a booster is shown and proven to meet the specifications delineated in the report we filed, it won’t go rogue, if you will. Any electronic equipment can go rogue. Let’s shut down TV sets if they go rogue – it’s a stretch, but that’s why they’re certified.
WW: T-Mobile argued that cell phone signal boosters should be regulated similarly to handsets. What do you think of that?
Banos: Well, the problem is that it inhibits innovation. As long as they have the thumb on what you can have on your phone and what apps you can have and whether you can have open Skype or not, we’re right back around to Carterfones. They don’t want to lose control of devices on the network, not necessarily what’s best for the consumer. Operators can make the process onerous, and it shouldn’t be. A person who has bad service should be able to go to Best Buy, spend his own money on a box that’s going to make the service he’s paying for already better. That’s his choice. That should not be controlled by the carrier.
WW: Speaking of those choice issues, CTIA is still expressing some major reservations about the regulations. They still want the FCC to require users of the boosters get a license and they still want the FCC to “clarify” that the sale of boosters to unauthorized parties is illegal. What do you make of that? Do your specifications address these two issues?
Banos: It’s a control issue. There are no technical legs for these guys to stand on. Verizon seems to be okay with the specifications, so why aren’t these guys okay with it? What exactly, other than control, what’s the reason? They want to have it under their thumb because they don’t want to become a dumb pipe.
WW: You just talked about your relationship with Verizon Wireless on the new specifications. Has your relationship with Verizon Wireless always been this good or is this a more recent development?
Banos: No. It’s been very contentious. What I think happened here is they were the first to realize it was time to leave the lawyers in the other room and bring in the engineers. At one point I head the words spoken, “We feel this is good for our consumers.” That’s it. That’s what it should be about. Let’s do what’s best for the consumer, not what’s best for me. We feel strongly that if properly designed, the amplifiers are fine. They’re not going to hurt anyone.
I’ll give you an example: Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office has been incredible supporters of our products. They couldn’t operate without our boosters. They need our product. What are you doing to do, take it away from them?
WW: You guys have been working with Verizon Wireless – have you had talks with other carriers since the NPRM went out?
Banos: No. We actually did have just brief conversations with one or two carriers, but they really didn’t want to carry it very far.
Let me back up a second on one key issue that may be getting lost in translation. The Verizon proposal has very wisely separated boosters into three categories. They’ve got the consumer booster, the professionally installed booster for larger venues and then the carrier booster which is totally under operator’s control and serves to extend their signal.
WW: Thanks, I was actually going to ask you about whether you were treating the different kinds of boosters differently in the regulations. I take it that’s the case?
Banos: Yes, definitely. That was very wise on Verizon’s part, because up until now nobody had delineated and all boosters were being treated equal. And the more powerful and the more output power, the more touchy it gets to install and operate.
For the next category up from consumer, Verizon would like to have a certification process for installing the boosters. I think that’s one of the most wonderful things coming out of this. You’re going to have a body of certified installers who go through a course; it’s something we were looking at doing for ourselves, because we have customers looking to have boosters installed. It will be like DirecTV or Dish Network: The guy who comes out to your house to install it isn’t necessarily a DirecTV or Dish Network employee. They could be a local electronics dealer that’s certified to put in the equipment.
WW: The FCC still has to vote on the final rules. What happens now that you’ve submitted the specifications?
Banos: In a perfect world, the FCC would adopt the specifications we’re suggesting. A lot of weeks went into this. This is not something that got clobbered together or slammed together in three hours. There were a lot of hours put into this, there were a lot of exchanges back and forth, there was a lot of testing that took place.
Hopefully, the FCC will adopt the specifications that we’ve proposed, they would get translated to actual test procedures so when you submit an amplifier, there’s a written set of specifications to test them. Those procedures would get implemented into the FCC’s certification process for boosters, and any booster beyond a certain date would be certified under the new tighter specs.
You may have noticed there’s some rumblings about making the amplifiers or boosters that are out there already obsolete over a period of time. We think that’s unnecessary. There are over a million boosters out in the field, the great majority of which have never caused a problem. I think the manufacturers should be ready and willing to take care of a problem with a booster, but to ask a million people to turn their boosters in is ridiculous.
WW: You touched on this a little bit just now – how will the regulations affect manufacturers of cell phone signal boosters like Wilson Electronics once they do finally go into effect? Are you going to have to change how you do business? Do you think it could require some companies to change their designs?
Banos: There’s nothing in the regulations that a decent communications engineer with experience couldn’t implement into a booster system. There’s nothing in there that’s nuclear science. A lot of it is software driven, so the main thing I look at as a manufacturer is what this is going to do to the cost of goods, and it’s practically nothing. We’ve been implementing a lot of these safeguards for some time now. The point here is for the consumer to be able to buy these and be happy. There’s nothing in the specifications that our competition couldn’t implement.