Poor cellphone reception at home can often be improved with a signal booster, a small device that resembles a Wi-Fi router. This week the Federal Communications Commission issued its first rules for using signal boosters that consumers must follow.
Dropped calls, slow Internet speeds and pockets with intermittent service are the bane of people living in rural areas where wireless carriers have yet to build adequate infrastructure like cell towers, but the same problems can plague city dwellers.
In fact, 72 percent of cell owners experience dropped calls at least occasionally and 77 percent of cellphone Internet users experience slow download speeds, the Pew Research Center found in a recent study. (If you want to know if there are others in your area that are experiencing problems with cellphone reception, take a look at the Dead Cell Zones map, an online map that lets people register their complaints.)
The FCC estimates there are about 2 million signal boosters in use. The group acknowledged the usefulness of boosters, but also listened to wireless carrier complaints that the devices can make service worse for some customers. Booster signals can cause signal interference between carriers if customers' booster signals are transmitted outside of their carrier's spectrum.
The new rules are aimed at reducing interference while allowing consumers to continue using the devices. Carriers , consumer activist groups and device manufacturers agreed on the regulations.
If you use a signal booster or plan to buy one, here's what you need to do as of March 1 when the new rules take effect:
- Register the booster with your cellphone service provider. (The regulations also say you must get permission from your carrier, but Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and the Rural Telecommunications Group companies have given blanket approvals for FCC-approved devices, which means you don't have to obtain permission if you use one of these carriers, the FCC said.)
- Use a booster that is approved by the FCC. Look for the FCC logo on the device and the phrase "Meets Network Protection Standard." The FCC will not accept applications for devices that do not meet their specifications after March 1.
- Use the booster "as-is," which means you can't disable built-in safeguards to reduce interference and increase your signal.
If your booster causes interference, you will have to shut it down. The demand will come from your cellphone provider.
Signal boosters are available at most retailers that sell electronics and can range from around $100 to $500 or more. The larger the area you want to cover, the more you'll pay. Also, boosting 4G phone signals is usually more expensive than 3G.