The Real Reasons Cell Phone Boosters Are Suddenly Taboo

Devices that boost cellular signals in areas of poor coverage can turn a useless phone into a portable powerhouse, but maybe they’re too good of a solution. The CTIA, an international wireless telecommunications industry group, is seeking greater control on the use of such signal boosters, reports the New York Times (s NYT). Both AT&T (s t) and Verizon Wireless (s vz) have filed complaints about network interference, which may be a legitimate issue, but carriers have other reasons to put pressure on signal boosters.

It’s worth noting that many carriers now offer their own solution to the coverage problem in the form of femtocells: small cellular base stations that expand a localized coverage area up to 5,000 square feet. These femtocells are available for a fee, although in some cases, carriers have quietly offered them at no charge, and represent another revenue opportunity that signal boosters could be taking away. The carriers also sell additional service plans with femtocells; AT&T customers, for example, can pay $20 extra per month for unlimited voice calls made through the device.

Clearly, there’s a financial benefit for carriers to corner this market, but there are additional incentives for them to want to shut out signal boosting device companies. Femtocells take traffic from the handset and offload it away from the cellular operator’s wireless network; customers connect a femtocell to their existing home wired broadband which handles the traffic. In effect, femtocells reduce the demand for a carrier’s wireless infrastructure as opposed to standard signal boosters, which still keep voice and data traffic on the operator network.

What I find slightly ironic about this situation is that the CTIA is leading the charge for the Federal Communications Commission to review the use of third-party signal boosters. I’ve attended the CTIA Wireless show, an industry trade event, and have met with companies who produced signal boosters, such as Wilson Electronics. Indeed, companies like Wilson offered their solution long before the carriers realized they needed femtocells to help cover network holes in homes and businesses. I’ve tested some of their mobile products, and they can definitely strengthen a weak cellular signal, adding 3 or 4 bars to an iPhone (s aapl), for example.

Granted, allowing exhibitors like Wilson Electronics at its own trade show doesn’t imply that the CTIA is endorsing signal boosting products, but concerns about interference from such devices weren’t prominently voiced by the CTIA until recently. Is it any coincidence that these issues cropped up around the time the carriers were prepared to offer their own solution for additional money?

Ultimately, consumers will suffer if signal boosters, or any other devices, for that matter, cause network interference. So I’m not against any FCC research nor any common-sense regulations that prohibit such solutions. However, I’d like to see the approach taken where a signal boosting device could still be sold, provided that it either meets FCC interference guidelines or can reduce its signal in situations of potential interference. Anything short of that would just give the carriers more control than consumers want and shut out the smaller players in this huge industry. Can’t these devices just co-exist so that consumers can have a choice of which solution best fits their needs?

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):