Do we need a Carterfone-for-wireless ruling?

* What's legal and what's not on your wireless network

Recently I wrote about a company in Texas that was bawled out by its mobile carrier when the company's internal phone-signal repeaters began interfering with the carrier's new 3G network. Though the company was skeptical that the FCC would really fine it $20,000 a day, as the carrier threatened, it didn't call the carrier's bluff. Instead, it found a different solution.

That squabble represents a tiny aspect of a larger controversy that's been brewing between mobile carriers and wireless equipment makers for years. Mobile operators contend that they must explicitly certify any piece of equipment used in electromagnetic spectrum frequencies for which they hold licenses before anyone can use it.

Good and wicked cool mobile and wireless companies to watch

Yet the FCC certifies plenty of radio equipment that doesn't get sanctioned by carriers, ends up on retail store shelves, and is bought and installed. How are consumers and businesses supposed to know that those devices are problematic? And are they really illegal to use without the carrier's blessing?

That depends on the interpretation of law and whom you talk to. Companies such as Wilson Electronics, which makes signal boosting equipment for multiple U.S. wireless networks, contends that "no Commission rule or regulation requires a subscriber in good standing to obtain the explicit authorization of the licensee to operate an in-building radiation system or any other FCC-certificated fixed or mobile signal booster."

That said, though, Wilson does believe that the FCC should beef up its certification tests. The company filed a request for rulemaking with the FCC last November with a suggestion it thinks could solve the problem: require the FCC to test not only for power output levels but also for interference protection capabilities in the equipment.

Not surprisingly, Wilson says its equipment contains such capabilities and that others should, too, to avoid incidents such as the one in Texas. Wilson makes small in-building repeaters, as well as a $129 cradle device for individuals, called the Sleek, aimed largely at eradicating dropped calls inside vehicles.

Wilson's idea would be to have FCC testing determine what is and isn't harmful to networks rather than having the carriers decide, as they do now in a fairly random manner. The New America Foundation Wireless Future Program wrote in a working paper that this has given the mobile operators "…enormous power over equipment design and over application markets."

Sound familiar? Yep, the landmark 1968 Carterfone decision to allow any consumer to attach any safe device to his or her phone line is rearing its head again in the mobile industry.

Only time will tell what, if any, outcome will occur. But the time is ripe, what with the outcry over coverage and capacity deficiencies that come to light with the success of multimedia-heavy devices such as the Apple iPhone and iPad. Perhaps the situation will cause us to take a fresh look.

And if it turns out we can buy our own equipment that improves our signal without causing harm, maybe we'll be free of those nasty "map" commercials for good.

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