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Common Ground: Putting The Brakes On Radar Detectors

By | April 1, 2002

      Richard Dalbello

      So, you’ve just purchased the new BMW Z8, loaded with all the options. You’re cruising down the highway at a speed bordering on insanity, wind blowing through your hair, a radar detector positioned on your dash board in the hopes of avoiding a possible run-in with a stern-faced, ticket-touting state trooper. You feel like you’re the king or queen of the road–but beware. You have a lot more to worry about than just a simple speeding ticket. You, my friend, are in possession of an unintentional radiating device and the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) has your number!

      In what has to be the most unlikely pair-up to occur outside a World Wrestling Federation ring, the U.S. satellite industry is preparing to lock horns with the manufacturers and importers of radar detectors over the sale, or use of these ubiquitous devices. Contrary to popular belief–with the exception of Washington, DC, and Virginia–radar detectors are legal for use in passenger vehicles in the rest of the United States. Federal law, however, prohibits the use of radar detectors in commercial vehicles throughout the fifty states. Radar detectors, for the most part cheaply engineered and mass-produced to reduce cost, are supposed to be “passive” devices and therefore unlicensed under Part 15 of FCC rules. However, to enhance detection of police radars and to make it more difficult for police to detect them, some radar detectors employ a frequency oscillator that sweeps through police radar bands and, unintentionally, through the primary Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) bands. In so doing, these radar detectors produce high levels of interference that can–within hundreds of feet–cause serious disruptions to VSAT operations.

      VSAT networks are the enabling technology that give consumers access to a wide range of services from “pay-at-the-pump” to ATM withdrawals. Corporations use VSATs for data transmission, inventory management, point-of-sale data collection, credit card validation and e-mail delivery. The VSAT sector represents one of the fastest growing markets in the satellite industry. The businesses using VSAT networks are representative of many major U.S. industries: Walmart, RiteAid, Texaco and Exxon use VSAT terminals at every location. Ford and GM use VSAT services at all dealerships and suppliers, and the U.S. Postal Service uses VSAT services in every local post office. Furthermore, VSATs are also used for critical operations such as tele-medicine, disaster recovery, law enforcement, rural telecommunications and distance learning.

      The damage caused by radar detectors is not limited to VSAT networks. Radar detectors have caused harmful interference to other satellite operations, including mission critical functions such as satellite tracking, telemetry and control, for which the loss of a single antenna for even a limited period can have catastrophic consequences. In addition, Sirius Satellite Radio recently filed a Petition for Rulemaking concerning interference from Part 15 and Part 18 interference into DARS systems.

      Many U.S. satellite companies began experiencing intermittent problems with their VSAT networks and services back in the early 1990s. As the radar detectors changed their operational frequencies to adapt to changes in police radar guns, they gradually began to encroach more seriously on the VSAT bands. Identifying the source of intermittent inference is always difficult, and requires long-term monitoring and investigation. This is particularly true when the interference device–as in this case–is installed in a car that is driving by a VSAT terminal. U.S. satellite companies experiencing this problem have had to take extraordinary steps, including moving satellite dishes, reserving additional spectrum, hiring spectrum consultants and utilizing hundreds of hours of engineering time. Solving the interference on a case-by-case basis has been an expensive and time-consuming process.

      Some radar detectors currently emit power levels greatly in excess of the limits established by the FCC for unlicensed intentional radar detectors. Their operation constitutes a clear violation of the FCC’s operating, if not technical rules. Regardless of technical limits, under Part 15, all unlicensed devices are prohibited from causing harmful interference to licensed users. All devices operating under Part 15 are required to cease operation in the event they cause interference into an authorized radio service.

      As a result, the SIA recently filed comments with the FCC urging them to take swift action to limit the harmful interference caused by radar detectors. To fix this problem, the FCC must impose strict quantitative standards for radar detector emissions and should require that radar detectors be authorized, via certification, prior to the initiation of marketing. The FCC also needs to take swift action to address the interference being caused today.

      The Radio Association Defending Airwave Rights (RADAR), the association representing the radar detector industry, stated in recent FCC filings that they would voluntarily limit radar detector emissions in the VSAT receiver bands by June 2003. While it is useful that the RADAR group has admitted to causing interference to VSAT communications, their proposal to delay resolution of the problem until mid-2003 is unacceptable.

      The FCC needs to take a hard look at the future of Part 15 and the concept of unlicensed devices. However, even before Part 15 gets a makeover, the policy on this one should be clear–the FCC should put the brakes on VSAT-jamming radar detectors before they cause further damage. The FCC should send a clear signal to other technologies that they must test their devices against satellite networks before committing to designs–or face abrupt removal from the market. That’s a signal you don’t need a radar detector to pick up.

      Richard DalBello is the executive director of the Satellite Industry Association. His e-mail is

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