- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Here’s a question: Will the Federal Communications Commission allow the widespread use of a device that can make it easier for Americans to use cell-phone technology, with fewer dropped calls and stronger signals?

I don’t know the answer — and, frankly, it was difficult to figure out how to get one this past holiday weekend — but it is a fascinating issue.

Wilson Electronics Inc. offers a “universal cell phone signal booster” under the trademarked name Sleek, at a list price of $129, though I’ve seen it at both Amazon.com and NewEgg.com for $30 or so less. The booster clips to your dashboard, and is powered through what used to be the cigarette lighter outlet. (Now, I think, it’s just called “power” in most cars.) There’s an external antenna that magnetically attaches to a car rooftop, and a wire snakes back in.

It may not be the most elegant solution visually, but Jonathan Bacon, marketing manager for the Wilson firm, swears that it works: When he had a daily commute from Salt Lake City to Wilson’s offices in St. George, Utah, at the southern end of the state, he never missed a beat, cell call-wise. Without the device, Mr. Bacon said, the phone signal periodically would cut out along that winding trip.

The technology and idea of signal boosting isn’t new: You can find all sorts of instructions online to boost Wi-Fi signal reception, for example. But America’s cellular companies think a device such as the Sleek could pose a problem for their networks. Too much signal enhancement and cells could be jammed with too much traffic; what’s more, the devices could oscillate, or send signal “noise” back to the cell tower, gumming up the works as it were.

Mr. Bacon asserts the Sleek device avoids these problems. He said the boosting only works when the phone isn’t close enough to a cell tower to get a good signal on its own. And the Wilson firm has overcome the oscillation problem, he said.

Taking Mr. Bacon at his word, pending my own test of the device on an upcoming road trip, why wouldn’t the cellular firms want to embrace the idea of signal boosting?

There are a couple of possible reasons, Mr. Bacon suggested. One is that cellular companies might not want to admit you need a booster device. But some industry experts suggest as many as 26 percent of the cell-phone-using population has a coverage “issue” either at home or at work, he noted. Market research firm InStat has said that as many as 35 percent of cell users have switched carriers over coverage issues.

The other reason: femtocells, small electronic devices sold by the cell carriers that boost their signals in homes and offices. Trouble is, those devices are generally carrier-specific: An AT&T Wireless femtocell won’t help a Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon user.

The Sleek device can work with any mobile phone using PCS, AMPS, CDMA or GSM systems, except for those running the iDEN/Nextel standard. It’s mobile, which isn’t true for femtocells, although there is also a model of the Wilson device for home use.

The ultimate decision will come from the FCC. Last fall, responding to industry concerns, Wilson Electronics asked the FCC to issue a ruling on standards for signal boosters. Comments closed at the end of February, and now the FCC’s commissioners (and their staffs) have to weigh the comments, the evidence and decide what, if anything, to do.

What will happen? Again, I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone who might know would speak about it at this point. But I hope a way can be found to keep these devices on the road. With some 59 million Americans living in rural areas, and with millions more of us driving through those areas, this technology could save more than a conversation — it could very well save someone’s life.

Send e-mail to mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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