On January 8, the FCC expanded the over-the-air reception device rules (OTARD) to allow for the placement of wireless hubs and relays for the delivery of broadband or voice service. This ruling will make it easier for fixed wireless companies and 5G providers to distribute signals within a neighborhood.
This ruling amends and extends the original OTARD rules. Those rules allow apartment tenants to install antennas in any space they control like a patio or balcony. They allow somebody renting a house to install an antenna anywhere on the home or property they rent, without having to notify the property owner. These rules were first passed many years ago to define tenant rights that are separate from landlord rights. Tenants can use areas that are included in the rental space to receive a wireless signal. Landlords still have jurisdiction over common spaces like rooftops and common real estate. Landlords can allow the use of common spaces but are not required to do so.
The rules also stop others like homeowner associations or local governments from placing unreasonable restrictions on the placement of antennas. For example, a homeowner association might suggest that antennas must be placed on the backside of a home away from the street. But if there is no place in the rear that can receive the wireless signal, the OTARD rules allow placement in the front of the building.
In the past, these rules applied to tenants and renters being allowed to place antennas or small dishes so that they can receive service. The most recent ruling gives new rights to WISPs and wireless companies. Providers can now site a relay point along with a customer antenna. For example, a WISP may have a customer in one apartment and can use that receiver to further beam the signal to a second customer.
This kind of use vastly increases the reach of a WISP. Today, there is no broadband option for a premise that doesn’t have line-of-sight to the WISP transmitting antenna. The new ruling gives the wireless provider the ability to use an existing customer location as a relay point to reach other customers.
This has some interesting applications due to newer technologies. For example, there are now receivers that can be placed inside windows that could be reached from a nearby transmitter. Such devices can’t receive the signal directly from the distant tower but can connect to a nearby neighbor.
This is also a useful ruling for fiber-to-the-curb providers like Verizon which can use a receiver on a customer’s home to retransmit broadband to a second customer that is not within line-of-sight from the pole-mounted transmitter.
It’s likely that the new ruling will quickly get tested in court. For example, a tenant might have broadband service directly from a WISP with a legally located antenna. But when that tenant leaves, the landlord or the next tenant might want to remove the antenna. In the past, that’s been allowed if there is no longer service being provided to the original customer.
But this gets complicated if the unit in question is also a relay unit being used to serve additional renters. The new rules imply that the receiver could not be removed because that would disconnect working customers, even though they are not located at the property with the antenna. This seems to grant property rights to wireless companies in that they’ll be able to force property owners to keep a relay antenna that is not providing any direct benefit to the unit with the antenna. It’s not hard to anticipate property owners not liking these rules. It’s also not hard to envision property owners taking down an antenna without knowing it is being used to serve other customers.
Smart WISPs will talk to property owners when they establish these kinds of connections because nobody wants to get embroiled in this kind of dispute. But ultimately, the OTARD rules provide the ability of renters to get wireless broadband – and now seemingly gives that right to secondary locations that are reached by a locally relayed signal.