Set against a backdrop of increasing demand for wireless access, services and content and faced with increased use of metallic building materials that interfere with mobile signals, Ofcom has requested stakeholders provide it with their views on the installation and use of mobile coverage enhancers/repeater devices by end users to enhance mobile coverage/signals in the UK.

What? 

In issuing the call for inputs Ofcom is seeking to establish whether end user repeaters/enhancers have the necessary characteristics, or alternatively could be used in a specified manner, to provide enhanced coverage solutions for consumers and businesses without causing interference or having adverse effects on mobile networks and/or other mobile users.  At present it is an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act (“WTA”) to establish or use wireless telegraphy stations or install or use wireless telegraphy apparatus without a licence, unless an exemption applies.  Failure to comply with the relevant requirements of the WTA can result in the issuance of a fine and/or the prospect of facing criminal liability.

So what?

The ability to enable employees to communicate and to access data whilst on the move is increasingly important to organisations, and not just when they are away from the organisation’s site or premises.  Increasingly organisations are finding that their employees are unable to use their mobile devices due to a lack of coverage and signal strength at their own premises.  There are a number of different factors that can contribute to such a situation, including the size and location of a site/building, but also the materials that have been used at the site (including an increased use of metallic structures and components).  A seemingly simple solution to this problem is to install a mobile signal enhancer/repeater. However, such an approach is not currently as straightforward as it may at first appear and can be fraught with unsuspected legal consequences and liabilities.

Mobile signal enhancers/repeaters are radio devices that transmit and receive wireless signals and are therefore governed by the provisions of the WTA.  Under the WTA 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.  As an example mobile handsets are forms of wireless telegraphy apparatus but these devices do not require a licence as there is an exemption in place for their use on certain frequencies provided they conform with applicable interface requirements issued by Ofcom.

Unlike mobile handsets mobile signal enhancers/repeaters are not currently exempt from the WTA’s licensing requirements.  Therefore it is only possible for network operators to provide and install these devices under the terms of their spectrum licences.  Whilst this can assist in boosting an individual network operator’s coverage/signal (where such devices are available) it does not enable mobile signals in general to be strengthened at an organisation’s premises. 

If organisations purchase mobile signal enhancers/repeaters from suppliers, other than the mobile network operators themselves, they will need to ensure that such suppliers have entered into legally binding agreements with the mobile operator to supply and install such smart/intelligence repeaters or that they are supplying mobile network femtocells (both types of devices being under the control of the mobile network operator). If not then the installation and use of such equipment by the supplier and/or the organisation will breach the terms of the WTA and could result in an investigation being carried out by Ofcom with the imposition of a fine and/or criminal liability being possible.

As well as potentially falling foul of the requirements of the WTA, organisations that purchase mobile signal enhancers/repeaters also need to ensure that such devices comply with the requirements of the Radio Equipment and Telecommunications Terminal Equipment Regulations 2000 (the “RTTE Regulations”).  Prior to such devices being placed on the market, or put into service, they are required to comply with certain essential requirements and information requirements.  Where an organisation cannot demonstrate that it has taken all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to ensure that the device satisfies the requirements of the RTTE Regulation they may be committing an offence under the RTTE Regulations. 

In our experience it is not uncommon for Ofcom to investigate potential breaches of the WTA and the RTTE Regulations at the same time where it believes that mobile signal enhancers/repeaters are being used unlawfully. 

Ofcom now wants to better understand the circumstances in which mobile signal enhancers/repeaters could improve coverage without having adverse effects on mobile networks and other end users of such networks, and is currently considering further liberalising the use of mobile signal enhancers/repeaters by making designated devices licence exempt.  This would enable third party suppliers to sell/install, and organisations to install/use, devices that satisfy any technical requirements imposed as a condition of such licence exempt status to enhance mobile coverage. However, Ofcom makes it very clear that its call for input is without prejudice to its ability to investigate offences under the WTA and RTTE Regulations where mobile signal enhancers/repeaters are being used unlawfully. 

Responses to the call for input have been requested by 6 August 2014.