Schools stand to gain from FCC's move to expand use of signal boosters

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A decision this week by the Federal Communications Commission will potentially help schools that suffer from poor mobile phone reception — not only providing better service for students, teachers and staff, but also better connecting campuses to public safety agencies.

The commission voted unanimously Thursday to lift the existing personal-use restriction on provider-specific cell phone signal boosters. In 2013, the FCC had approved the boosters, but only for individual use, concerned that they might disrupt mobile reception beyond the home or spectrum needs of first responders.

Bruce Lancaster, CEO of Wilson Electronics, a leading U.S. manufacturer of cell phone signal amplifiers, said the FCC decision is significant for schools everywhere, not just in rural areas.

“I think the ruling today really helps push the accessibility of mobile communications in schools,” Lancaster told EdScoop, “both rural and downtown, where buildings can block connectivity.”

The thick walls of many school buildings hinder cell phone reception, and signal boosters can help, Lancaster said. During a crisis situation, anyone on site with a cell phone will be better able to reach emergency responders, he said.

Lancaster said schools will be able to choose whether they want to strengthen cell phone signals throughout entire buildings, which might require several boosters, or to designate areas, such as cafeteria, gymnasium or administrative offices, that only need a single booster.

“For learning, [students] need access to their phones to be able to look something up,” he said, touching on the idea that smartphones are becoming the device of choice for students. “This vote by the FCC furthers that ability to reach those schools.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, noted in a written statement that “hundreds of thousands of signal boosters have been deployed” since the 2013 decision.

“Today we build on that success by eliminating what has proved to be an unnecessary restriction limiting the use of signal boosters by businesses, schools and public safety,” she said.

The commission will explore “further liberalizing … signal booster policies with respect to new spectrum bands and expanded enterprise uses,” Rosenworcel said.

Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, echoed Rosenworcel’s statement. “[G]iven the fast pace of change in the wireless market, our signal booster rules should keep up with the bands that carriers are using — while continuing to guard against harmful interference,” he said.

Reach the reporter at pwaitster@gmail.com and follow her
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