Wilson Electronics, a maker of cellular signal boosters, has launched a website to share customer testimonials and give consumers a way to fight to keep the devices legal.
Boosters amplify the signal of a mobile phone or a cellular base station to provide better data and voice coverage, typically inside a building or a vehicle. Unlike femtocells, which mobile operators have been offering recently to improve their subscribers' indoor mobile experience, boosters don't redirect any traffic to the user's wired broadband connection but instead simply boost the connection between the phone and the existing cell tower.
Privately held Wilson says it will sell about 200,000 boosters this year, approximately 60 percent of them for use in vehicles. Prices range from about $100 to thousands of dollars for a large in-building system. The company offers units for both GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) networks and now has LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and WiMax products in beta testing. It expects to start selling the LTE and WiMax products in the first quarter of next year, said Chief Operations Officer Joe Banos.
Wilson is fighting what it sees as carrier resistance to signal boosters stemming from concerns over interference with their own networks. The cellular industry group CTIA has asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rule that any device that uses a mobile operator's frequencies has to be approved by the carrier. Wilson contends that its current boosters don't cause interference but that some others do, and it wants the FCC to impose stricter requirements on new signal boosters to solve the problem.
The new site, Hear-Me.org, is part of Wilson's ongoing campaign to make sure third-party vendors can continue to provide boosters as long as they don't interfere with carrier networks. It offers written testimonials and videos by users who say they depend on signal boosters for either personal or public-safety calls. In addition, the site includes information about the issue, a list of government agencies that say they rely on boosters, and a link to write to lawmakers and others about the need for boosters.
The testimonials come from Wilson's own customers. The St. George, Utah, company hired Action First, a firm in Washington, D.C., that conducts lobbying based on public input, to create the site. Among other things, customers used loaned video cameras to record their own experiences, said Wilson spokesman Jonathan Bacon. In addition to the few dozen people who provided testimonials for the website's map, about 1,000 other advocates of signal boosters provided testimonials, videos or comments, some of whom represent larger organizations, said Matt Waldrip, a partner at Action First.
One of the testimonials indicated by a virtual pushpin on the website's map is from George Guengerich, an operations manager at Yellowstone Park Service Stations in Gardiner, Montana.
"I would like to take this moment to express my concern over the potential restriction or elimination of after-market signal cell phone boosters," Guengerich wrote. "This would be an extreme detriment to public and employee safety if this happens. Yellowstone National Park receives approximately 3.5 million visitors per year and this technology saves lives and provides an invaluable communication tool in remote areas."
Wilson works closely with carriers in Canada, but U.S. operators so far haven't been willing to endorse or sell signal boosters, according to Banos. He believes they are only hurting themselves, because boosters improve the subscriber experience.
"I believe boosters are a customer retention tool for the carriers," Banos said.
There are several different ways the FCC might address the issue, but it is likely to take some action before the end of this year, Banos believes.
The two largest U.S. mobile operators, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, were not immediately available for comment.