June 12, 2023

FCC Continues Slow March Toward Broader Acceptance of Ultra-Wideband Technologies

4 min

Late last month, the Federal Communications Commission's Office of Engineering & Technology (OET) granted Schlage Lock Company LLC a waiver of the Part 15 rules to market an ultra-wideband (UWB) device. This is the first UWB waiver granted this year, but it continues a nearly two-decade movement toward broadening the allowable uses for the technology, with nearly twenty waivers granted. UWB technology is used in industrial and consumer devices for various sensing and detection needs, including medical imaging, security and surveillance, robotic lawn mowers, and even sporting events. The unlicensed technology spreads low RF energy across a very wide bandwidth, sharing well with other users because of the small amounts of data sent at any given time.

FCC waives its rules if a petitioner shows "good cause." Good cause may be found "where particular facts would make strict compliance inconsistent with the public interest." Ne. Cellular Tel. Co. v. FCC, 897 F.2d 1164, 1166 (D.C. Cir. 1990). To waive the Part 15 rules for UWB devices, the Commission determines whether operations under the waiver would not pose a threat of harmful interference to authorized radio services. In particular, when the FCC first developed the rules for UWB, it was concerned that UWB devices could be used to create wide-area communication systems that would interfere with other licensed users. For this reason, it imposed a number of limits on how the technology may be deployed, limits that parties have found restrict new use cases, thereby leading them to seek waivers of various aspects of the rules.

Here, Schlage sought to waive Sections 15.519(a) and 15.519(a)(2) of the Commission's rules, which, respectively, require all UWB devices to be handheld while operating and prohibit the use of antennas mounted on outdoor infrastructure. The company sells smart residential door locks that mount on entranceways and use Bluetooth Low Energy and UWB signals to verify authorized users of the lock before unlocking the door. The locks emit UWB signals only after a Bluetooth signal has discovered the valid credential nearby, following which the UWB signal would emit for less than a millisecond. If the UWB connection with the user fails to establish or becomes lost, one more attempt would be initiated in a time period of no more than a millisecond per 100 milliseconds. The locks use directional planar antennas for the communications, which contain the location of the transmissions to a limited area between the lock and the user at ground level.

The OET determined that under these circumstances the likelihood of harmful interference to authorized radio services would be low, because the devices only establish "singular" and "short-range" communications between a user and the associated lock for an "extremely" short period of time, and transmissions would occur within a confined area "primarily close to the ground." The OET also found that the public interest would be served in having these multifactored locks provide access security and minimize trespassing into homes.

Schlage's waiver is conditioned on maintaining its representations about its UWB device. Schlage is also subjected to additional requirements, such as reporting all incidents of interference with authorized radio services and, if directed, halting the sale and marketing of the devices. Finally, sales of the devices will be limited to 100,000 units per year.

The Commission has not signaled that it will take a specific policy change regarding UWB technologies, such as a rulemaking proceeding to update the rules. The waiver process allows the Commission to offer regulatory relief on a case-by-case basis, whereas a rulemaking proceeding would require it to manage the interests of a large number of users, including negotiating with federal users who were very opposed to the technology when it was first adopted. In a waiver last year, the Commission noted that it "will need to carefully evaluate future Part 15 UWB waivers based on the specific and unique circumstances associated with each application," and so far, the agency seems content to follow this path. However, given the wide range of UWB products that have been placed in the U.S. marketplace as a result of waivers, the Commission certainly now has a breadth of knowledge about the technology that could enable it to craft updated rules.

Venable's Telecommunications Group will continue to closely monitor regulatory developments around UWB and other radio communication devices.

The author would like to thank Roy Auh, summer associate, for his assistance in preparing this alert.