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Ofcom consult on mobile boosters

  • United Kingdom
  • Technology, Media and Telecoms - Telecoms

22-07-2021

 

Introduction

On 19 May 2021 Ofcom published a consultation paper on extending the range of mobile phone repeaters that can be used without a licence and the measures to improve information for consumers. This follows on from Ofcom’s decision back in 2018 to licence exempt certain mobile phone repeaters as part of its efforts to achieve more consistent network coverage and connectivity. We’ve previously commented on Ofcom’s strategy pledge in 2018 to enhance network coverage and the nuances around the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 (“WTA”) relating to mobile phone repeaters, this article can be found here.

What are Mobile Phone Repeaters and how are they currently regulated?

Mobile phone repeaters are radio devices that amplify signals between a network operator’s base station and a mobile phone and can therefore be used to enhance coverage in circumstances where the signal is otherwise weak. These repeaters are governed by the WTA and under this legislation it is an offence to establish or use a wireless telegraphy station, or to install or use wireless telegraphy apparatus, except under or in accordance with a licence or where an exemption applies. In 2018 Ofcom permitted certain repeaters to be classed as exempt from the requirements for a licence under the WTA provided certain conditions were met including: (i) a requirement that the repeaters operate only over the frequency bands of any single licensed network operator at a given time, (ii) that any related devices adjusted their power to the minimum necessary to make a reliable connection; and (iii) the repeaters incorporated anti-oscillation measures.

Current Problems

Since Ofcom’s decision to authorise certain licence exempt repeaters there has been a rise in the unlawful use of indoor mobile phone repeaters causing harmful interference to various mobile phone networks. In addition, those repeaters which are deemed to be exempt under the WTA are significantly more expensive than those illegally manufactured due to the complexity of the technical components required to comply with the current exemption. This is evidenced by the fact that currently only one manufacturer of exempt repeaters (Nextivity) exists. Furthermore, as currently only single operator mobile phone repeaters are licence exempt, households/businesses which contain several members may need to purchase multiple single-operator repeaters to enhance their network coverage.

In Ofcom’s view consumers and businesses have to date struggled to identify legal mobile repeaters. Ofcom has identified numerous offshore manufacturers placing non-compliant mobile repeaters on the UK market with the manufacturer falsely claiming that their products have been authorised and are ready for use. This has led to many consumers and businesses unknowingly purchasing unauthorised illegal repeaters creating interference to mobile networks or other spectrum users whilst simultaneously exposing themselves to potential enforcement action pursuant to the WTA.

What is the Consultation Paper seeking to do?

The consultation seeks views on how Ofcom can provide consumers and businesses with greater options to improve mobile coverage in their homes and offices by:

  1. enhancing consumer awareness and information through education and voluntary testing; and
  2. widening the scope of the exemption regime.

Ofcom considers that education enacted through consumer advocacy and information campaigns will enable consumers and businesses to identify devices that are classified as licence exempt whilst combating the sale of illegal repeaters on the market. To help achieve this, Ofcom is seeking views on the publication of a list of mobile phone repeaters that can be used without a licence on its website. Ofcom are proposing that a repeater will only be listed if it has been demonstrated (following testing by an independent third party accredited test house and in according with a voluntary testing standard produced by Ofcom) that it complies with the technical requirements of Ofcom’s licence exemption regime helping consumers and businesses identify which repeaters they should buy with the reassurance that the desired product is in fact legally compliant.

In addition, Ofcom is proposing to widen the exemptions available under the WTA. It is proposing that the use of certain types of repeater, ‘provider-specific’ and ‘multi-operator’ (that will operate on the frequencies of more than one mobile operator) be licence-exempt. Ofcom hopes that by increasing the catalogue of legally exempt repeaters made available to consumers and businesses a competitive retail market for legally compliant mobile repeaters will be created. In turn Ofcom’s view is that such an approach will help to reduce the number of illegal products on the market, improve indoor coverage issues for individuals and businesses and reduce signal interference.

Next Steps

Ofcom is inviting stakeholders to provide their comments on the proposals included in the consultation paper by 5pm on 28 July 2021. Ofcom will carefully consider the responses and look to publish its conclusions in late 2021.