T-Mobile’s Interference with Sirius? FCC Refereeing Dispute Over Cell Phone Disruptions

Drivers who have Sirius service in their cars have experienced it. They are driving along when suddenly Sirius drops out. Drivers who have Sirius and commute notice the drop-out comes at the same place each day.

What the drivers are experiencing is interference from some T-Mobile cell towers. The T-Mobile towers that use the AWS-1 spectrum are creating intermodulation, which results in the Sirius drop-out. Intermodulation results when two frequencies combine to create a third frequency. T-Mobile has been using the AWS band to support its LTE network, and with that network slated for 20% expansion by the end of 2015.

T-Mobile has indicated that the problem is that Sirius receivers have inadequate filtering that results in the problem. Sirius has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene in the dispute. However, T-Mobile is also trying to work with Sirius to solve the issue.Thomas Gryta, “Sirius, T-Mobile Spar Over Airwave Interference,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2015, p. B4.

One of the problems is that the technology has expanded so rapidly that the interaction (intermodulation) was not anticipated nor was the size of the market for cell phones and the resulting tower expansion. The interaction is unprecedented in terms of the amount of electronic interaction.

In addition to the technology problems, the legal issues have not been resolved because the law did not anticipate the issues of the use of the airwaves. At the federal level, the Federal Communications Act of 1996 prohibits state and local authorities from banishing cell phone towers through zoning and other regulations. In City of Arlington v. FCC, 133 S.Ct. 1863 (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal statute as well as the FCC procedures requiring liberal approval by local authorities for the tower erection. However, those battles continue and the problem of intermodulation is now addressed as part of the local processes for approval.

The FCC’s rules are based on the interpretation of the Federal Communications Act, which requires that state and local authorities act in a timely manner on applications for cell phone tower sites. In the Arlington case, the court basically deferred to the FCC on its rules and guidelines for local approvals.

The issue T-Mobile and Sirius presents new questions and jurisdictional issues as well as technical questions. The FCC’s intervention may be necessary because both Sirius and T-Mobile are operating within the law, but the result is that users are affected.

One of the issues that Sirius has raised is whether the FCC processes are too slow and cumbersome to resolve the types of issues that new technology brings. The filings and documentation required are burdensome and introduce delays in resolving immediate and ongoing concerns with interference.

The Samuelson-Glushko Technology and law Policy Clinic st the University of Colorado School of law has proposed allowing administrative law judges to resolve the issues, such as the one Sirius raises with T-Mobile, more expediently. The proceedings on these new rules are In re: Amendment to Commission Rules Concerning Adjudication of Spectrum Interference Disputes, RM-11750, before the Federal Communications Commission.

Discussion Starters

Describe the regulatory structure for cell phone tower locations and construction.

Explain the technology issues that result in interference.