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FCC's Ambivalent Views on Equipment Enforcement


Last week I gave an invited talk at the American Council of Independent Laboratories” (ACIL) 2012 Policies & Practices Conference. ACIL is the trade organization that represents private testing labs including the ones active in the FCC’s equipment authorization program, which FCC describes as

“The FCC oversees the authorization of equipment using the radio frequency spectrum. These devices may not be imported and/or marketed until they have shown compliance with the technical standards specified by the commission.”

The talk was entitled “Enforcement in the Digital Age”. Readers may recall that equipment marketing enforcement has been a recurring theme in this blog. While FCC sometimes lashes out with dramatic equipment marketing enforcement actions, in general FCC seems to turn a blind eye to such enforcement issues, relying almost exclusively on a complaint-driven process. FCC bureaucrats have learned that enforcement usually makes somebody angry, the perpetrator, who then hires a big law firm. Unless there is somebody who is pleased by the enforcement, a big complainant for example, the principle of “aggravation minimization” dictates don’t get involved.

Oddly, the major trade associations, NAB, CTIA, TIA, and CEA, seem to have little or no interest in equipment enforcement, except perhaps for the case of jammers. As a result there is essentially no independent surveillance of marketing of noncompliant equipment other than the recent (long overdue) initiative on cellular and GPS jammers. Enforcement Bureau staffers do not spot check retailers for noncompliant equipment. They don’t even go to the annual Consumer Electronics Show. There is a small amount of market surveillance by TCBs, but, as discussed in slides 16-17 this is minimal and hopelessly affected by intrinsic conflicts of interest.

The FCC Lab does not routinely call in equipment for post approval testing or ask manufacturers for copies of test data for equipment subject to Verification or Declaration of Conformity. During my tenure such events were very rare and may well continue to be very rare. Indeed, as I pointed out in my talk (slide 18 ), the labels on equipment subject to Verification or Declaration of Conformity do not necessarily contain enough information to even identify who the “responsible party” is that is supposed to have the test data. This if a suspicious unit were to be bought at a retailer - another unlikely event - it can be difficult to trace the source under present rules.


The issue of “lab queens” was discussed (Slide 15). “Lab queens” does not refer to the possible life style of FCC employees, rather it refers to test samples of equipment that are atypical of the actual production equipment. This could result from either testing many units and selecting the one with the best performance or by intentionally modifying a production, for example to decrease its power. This actually happens and so far has never resulted in a major penalty. I proposed criminalizing this behavior by requiring a sworn affidavit from a US resident stating that the unit was normal production unit taken from normal inventory. Further I proposed that FCC be authorized to request a “coupon” good for a unit of equipment at any retail dealer. This would allow FCC for the first time to get reliable samples of production equipment for sampling.

I pointed out that FCC keeps saying that it will modify its rules quickly when new types of equipment-related interference are actually encountered. This is just not credible. In the case of police radar detector interference to VSAT systems it took over 10 years for FCC to react. In the ongoing case of interference from early generation bidirectional cellular amplifiers if has taken more than 5 years and there still is no action so marginal manufacturers can still make the original designs although reputable manufacturers have eliminated the problem through design changes. I urged a regular public report on “emerging interference issues” which are not even well disseminated within FCC staff at present. (Slides 9-10)

Presently unregulated amplified
TV antenna with 55dB gain!

Perhaps some emerging issues don’t need regulator attention, but the FCC’s track record with radar detectors and bidirectional amplifiers shouldn’t give industry much confidence. In case you wonder if there are any more emerging interference issues these days , I urge you to read the following three items about TV antennas with built-in amplifiers: 1 2 3 Such amplifiers can sometimes spontaneously oscillate, just like the early bidirectional amplifiers for cell phones, and cause interference to TV reception, or GPS or cell phones. At present there are no regulations for such devices although the Commission appears to have authority under 47 USC 302a to regulate them to prevent interference. (It is also amusing to note that the 55dB gain in the antenna shown does no conceivable good unless the its amplifier has a lower noise figure than the TV receiver -- which can not be ascertained since no noise figure is stated for this product. Unless the amplifier has a high “third order intercept point” it may actually create intermodulation signals that will hurt reception of some weak signals.)

I ended the presentation with an open question: why do the major trade associations with an apparent interest in orderly spectrum use (CTIA, NAB, TIA, CEA) remain so silent on the issue? Is reasonable progress possible?

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