Why radio receivers won’t tune 800-900 MHz

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>>> 2020-11-28 the verboten band

To start: yes, long time no see. Well, COVID-19 has been like that. Some days I
feel accomplished if I successfully check my email. I finally managed to clear
out a backlog of an entire handfull of things that needed thoughtful responses,
though, and so here I am, screaming into the void instead of at anyone in

That said, let's talk a bit about radios. It is probably unsurprising by now
that I have a long-running interest in radio and especially digital radio
communications---but people who come to radio from all kinds of different
perspectives run into one odd problem: the curious refusal of any receiver
to tune to certain frequencies in the 800-900MHz range.

A lot of people have a general knowledge that this has to do with some kind of
legal prohibition on reception of cellular phones. That's roughly correct, but
to fully explain the matter requires going into some depth on two different
topics: FCC regulation of radio devices, and the development of cellular
phones. The first sounds more boring, so let's hit that one first.

Generally speaking, most electronic products manufactured or imported into the
United States are subject to regulation by the Federal Communications
Commission. Specifically, they generally require an "Equipment Authorization"
from the FCC prior to being marketed. For purposes of this regulatory scheme,
electronic devices can be broadly divided into two categories: intentional
radiators and unintentional radiators.

An intentional radiator is something that is specifically intended to broadcast
a radio signal, like, say, a cellular phone. Intentional radiators must be
certified to comply with the specific Part of the FCC regulations relevant to
the service for which they will be used. For example, cellular phones must be
certified against Part 27, Wireless Communications Service, among others. The
exact process varies by the part and can be involved, but it generally
involves the manufacturer paying a certified test lab to perform certain tests
and complying with various other filing requirements which include placing a
label on the device which specifies its FCC approval. Device manufacturers
must file with the FCC a description of how this label will appear before they
receive approval to market the device, which is why the rough designs of
unreleased devices are sometimes revealed by the rough drawings in these
filings---tech journalists will watch these to get the dimensions of new
iPhones, for example.

By the way, when I say the "FCC Regulations," if you want to follow along at
home these are promulgated as 47 CFR. So Part 27, for example, refers to 47 CFR
27. The ever lovely Cornell LII has the whole thing for your entertainment:
https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/47. There's some reading for when you need
help falling asleep.

But that's all besides the point, I'm more interested in talking about
unintentional radiators, devices which are not intended to produce RF radiation
but may still do so as a result of the operation of the electronics---this is
generally called a spurious emission, which is basically any RF emitted by
accident. These devices are certified under Part 15 of the FCC regulations[1],
and so are sometimes called "Part 15 devices." Part 15 essentially limits the
type and amplitude of spurious emissions to prevent random devices causing
harmful interference due to defects in their designs.

What would we call a radio *receiver*, then? It is explicitly a radio device,
but is not intended to transmit anything. As a result, radio receivers are Part
15 devices. Most of Part 15 is very general and doesn't really say anything
specific about radio devices, it just limits spurious emissions and other
design standards. However, 15.121 gets a great deal more specific in
discussing "Scanning receivers.' A scanning receiver is specifically defined
earlier in the regulation as a device capable of tuning to two or more frequency
bands in the range of 30-960Mhz. This has the fun result that nothing for the
GHz range is technically a scanner, but for practical reasons this doesn't
matter too much.

So what's in 15.121? This is:

47 CFR 15.121(a): ... scanning receivers and frequency converters designed or
marketed for use with scanning receivers, shall: (1) Be incapable of operating
(tuning), or readily being altered by the user to operate, within the frequency
bands allocated to the Cellular Radiotelephone Service in part 22 of this
chapter (cellular telephone bands). ... (b) Be designed so that the tuning,
control and filtering circuitry is inaccessible. The design must be such that
any attempts to modify the equipment to receive transmissions from the Cellular
Radiotelephone Service likely will render the receiver inoperable. 

The rest of paragraph (a) gives a pretty long clarification of "readily being
altered by the user," and it's amusing to think of a bunch of FCC characters
sitting around a table trying to think up every alteration that is easy.
Jumper wires and reprogramming micro-controllers are both right out.

It gets even better:

47 CFR 15.121(b): ... scanning receivers shall reject any signals from the
Cellular Radiotelephone Service frequency bands that are 38 dB or lower based
upon a 12 dB SINAD measurement, which is considered the threshold where a
signal can be clearly discerned from any interference that may be present. 

So, here's this actual weird rule about scanners. Scanners are specifically
prohibited from being able to tune to any bands allocated to the Part 22
Cellular Radiotelephone Service. This raises questions, and as you can imagine
from the way I got here, I am about to spend a long time answering them.

When the FCC says "Cellular Radiotelephone Service," they aren't talking about
cell phones in general. The CRS as I'll call it refers to a *very specific*
cellular service, and that is AMPS.

AMPS, the Advanced Mobile Phone System, is the most common in the US of the
"1G" cellular services. Most carriers that were around when it was offered
called it "Analog" service, and indeed, AMPS was entirely analog. And, due to
an odd detail of the regulation, large cellular carriers were *required* to
offer AMPS service until 2008, long after AMPS phones were no longer produced.
You may have had a candy bar phone back when you would occasionally see an "A"
for analog service, but I hope not into the late 2000s.

There are a few things that we might infer from AMPS being an analog service.
One of those things is that it probably did not employ strong encryption. In
fact, AMPS employed no scrambling or enciphering of any kind. Your phone
conversations were just flapping in the wind for anyone to hear. This posed a
major practical problem for carriers in the '90s as it was discovered that it
was not particularly difficult to intercept the call setup process from an AMPS
phone and swipe its identification numbers, allowing you to basically steal
someone else's cellular service. You can imagine that this was popular with
certain criminals with a need for untraceable but convenient communications.

There was also a problem for consumers: their phone conversations could be
fairly easily overheard. There were a number of ways to do this, using any
radio scanner that covered that band for example. One particularly well-known
option was a particular model of phone, the Oki 900, that had an unusually
open design (in terms of modifiability) that led to reverse engineered and
modified firmware being developed that made eavesdropping on other people's
calls just, well, a feature it had.

The scale of this problem was fairly large, and it was fairly well known. For
example, let's turn to *my* favorite source of late-night reading, newspaper
archives. A lovely piece in the 30 May 1990 issue of The News and Observer,
from Raleigh NC, takes the cheesy headline "Monitoring Megahertz" and goes
into some depth on the issue.

"I've heard men call their wives and tell them they'll be home late, then call
their girl friends," quipped one electronics store owner who had "accidentally"
eavesdropped on cellular calls using a scanner. We've all fat-fingered our
ways into someone else's affairs I'm sure, pun intended. Another person said
"when you look at the fact that there are how many thousands of people out
there who know my name, my mailing address and my salary...I put cellular
eavesdropping down as being no different from that." In the face of technology,
even in 1990, people had begun to abandon their privacy.

Cellular carriers were not so happy about this, viewing it as an embarrassment
to their operation. I have heard before that cellular carriers went so far as
to lobby for banning scanners entirely, although I am not aware of much hard
evidence of this. What they did do was convince congress to stick an extra few
paragraphs onto an otherwise only tangentially related bit of legislation
called the Telephone Disclosure and Dispute Resolution Act of 1992. This has
largely to do with abusive 1-900 numbers, which is its whole own topic in
telephone regulation that I ought to take on sometime. But it also brought
along just a bit more, an extra section that was subsequently amended several
times at the behest of cellular carriers. Let's read part of it, as amended,
and with some editing for readability.

The Commission shall prescribe and make effective regulations denying equipment
authorization for any scanning receiver that is capable of---(A) receiving
transmissions in the frequencies allocated to the domestic cellular radio
telecommunications service, (B) readily being altered by the user to receive
transmissions in such frequencies, or (C) being equipped with decoders that
convert digital cellular transmissions to analog voice audio.

Well, we've made it full circle: we've seen the regulation, and we've seen the
legislation that kicked the FCC to write the regulation. But how does this
translate today? Things get a bit weird there.

You see, the FCC seems to have (sensibly) interpreted the legislation as
applying directly to the Cellular Radiotelephone Service, even though the
legislation actually uses the term "domestic cellular radio communications
service" which seems almost equally lively to have been (1) intended to be more
general in its applicability or (2) a result of someone drafting legislation
having read "Cellular Radiotelephone Service" in the FCC regulations but then
forgetting exactly how it was worded.

The Cellular Radiotelephone Service was allocated 824-849MHz and later
869-894MHz. That's it. You see, all of the digital cellular systems we use
today are considered completely different services from Cellular Radiotelephone
(usually called Wireless Communications Service although the details get
complex). As a result, and to this day, those two sections in the 800MHz band
are verboten to scanners, and nothing else.

And about those frequencies... after the requirement for AMPS service ended,
all US carriers ceased AMPS operations. The old AMPS bands remain allocated for
cellular service, and Verizon and a couple of smaller carriers use the same
frequencies for digital cellular services, which employ encryption and cannot
be intercepted by radio scanners. The prohibition on tuning scanners to these
frequencies no longer makes any sense, especially since this ban has never been
extended to the AWS, PCS, and WCS bands that are more widely used by modern
cellular phones.

My suspicion is that the fact that this regulation was mandated by congress
makes it difficult for the FCC to remove or modify, even though it no longer
makes technical sense. Unless congress finds some time for minutiae we are
unlikely to see a change in this rule.

In general, the whole thing is sort of bizarre. Broadly speaking, it is legal
to listen in on any radio communications in the US, but cellular phones have
repeatedly gotten a special carve-out.

Repeatedly? That's right. The whole AMPS band and scanners rule is the only
specific *technical* regulation, but the Electronic Communications Privacy Act
of 1986 had actually already made it illegal to intercept or listen in on
cellular calls, and this remains true to the present day... but there was
virtually no enforcement, and that hasn't really changed to this day.

And of course the whole thing has always felt like a farce. The solution to the
poor (or rather nonexistent) security design of AMPS was never legislation, but
cellular carriers and the congress will be damned if they didn't try. In
practice, the rule swept the entire eavesdropping problem under the rug for
some years, allowing carriers to continue operating the insecure AMPS system
for far longer than they should have (...but exactly as long as the FCC
required them to).

Because listening to the modern digital cellular modes wouldn't be particularly
interesting or useful anyway, and this rule doesn't really deter anyone with
the motivation and ability to decode those modes anyway, there are two lasting
impacts of this rather particular rule:

1) SDRs and other receivers made today must implement this particular and
peculiar restriction in order to receive US equipment authorization, which is
probably part of the reason that a lot of SDRs... don't.

2) To comply with the specifics of the regulation about rejection, many
receivers use a notch filter around 850MHz in their frontend. This means that
reception throughout the 800-900MHz range is particularly poor, a real
irritation as various public agencies and private agencies (especially
railroads) use land-mobile radios elsewhere in the 800-900Mhz range.

Basically, more than a decade after any of this made sense, we're all still
hassling with it.

[1] Part 15 is actually a lot more general and unintentional radiators are
specifically discussed under 47 CFR 15.101, but everyone just says Part 15.

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