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The FCC TCB Program: A Government and Industry Cooperative

F2_shutterstock_3391078“Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail, but when I look at the subsequent developments I feel the credit is due to others rather than to myself.” – Alexander Graham Bell

As a compliance engineer it is easy to develop a “victim” mentality after working with a multitude of government agencies and bureaucracies, having to adjust and adapt to whatever regulatory roadblocks are set up in your path. It can seem as though some of the rules and compliance criteria are arbitrary and random, and I have wished on more than one occasion that I was able to talk and work directly with the agencies, and be able to better understand and influence the requirements and processes.

I was finally granted that wish when I became involved with the United States (US) Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Telecommunications Certification Bodies (TCB) program. My initial exposure to this government and private industry initiative was a decade ago, while I was working at an ITE manufacturer, and more recently I’ve observed it from a different perspective while working at a third-party compliance test lab that is an authorized TCB. TCBs are private industry independent organizations, which have been authorized under this FCC program to issue grants to electronic product manufacturers for the certification of specific types of telecommunications equipment covered under the program scope.

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Please note that this article is intended as an overview of the TCB program based on my work experiences, and I am not speaking in any official capacity for the FCC, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Telecommunications Certification Body Council (TCBC), or any other agency. The opinions and views provided are my own, and you should utilize the FCC, NIST, TCBC and other official resources provided at the end of this article for the program details, requirements, and publications before applying for product approvals.

So let’s start with some background on how this program came to be.


Creating a Government-Industry Partnership

Prior to the TCB program, certification for telecommunication equipment required a grant of authorization issued directly from the FCC. These “new equipment authorizations” were legal documents, which were issued based on exhibits demonstrating compliance to the FCC rules and regulations, such as test reports from the FCC lab, or a FCC authorized test lab. The FCC grant certificate has several purposes: to define the device operating modes, features, and ratings; the allowed uses and environments for the device, and to show that the product was properly tested according to the applicable FCC rules and regulations, including worst cases configurations, so that it can be sold and placed on the US market.

With momentum from a wider effort in the United States to reduce the size of government agencies by turning more regulatory activities over to private enterprises, the legislative framework for the TCB was established at the end of 1998, when the FCC GEN Docket Report and Order No. 98-68 was adopted. For the FCC, this was seen as a method to reduce the number of applications filed directly with them, reducing their workload, so they could focus on enforcement activities. The program also allowed TCBs outside of the US to participate, by establishing procedures for government-to-government Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA); for example, the MRA between the US and the European Union (EU) governments allows accredited US TCBs to certify radio and telecom products for the EU markets, and reciprocally allows accredited EU TCBs to certify radio and telecom products for the US market. Another driver for this program was industry, who had encountered occasional bottlenecks at the FCC in obtaining certification, especially prior to seasonal selling periods such as the Christmas holidays, and wanted faster options for US certification and regional labs outside of Washington D.C, which would match the US efforts with foreign MRA partners to expand the certification options.

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The criteria for TCB accreditation and designation was further defined in FCC Public Notice DA 99-1640 issued on August 17, 1999. The program officially started on June 2, 2000, with the publication of FCC Public Notice DA 00-1223, which listed the 13 initial designated TCBs, along with their specific scope of accreditation for licensed radio service equipment, unlicensed radio frequency devices, and telephone terminal equipment. Another major revision for TCB rules
for designation and requirements was published in ET Docket No. 03-201 (FCC 04-165), which was officially adopted on July 8, 2004.


Becoming a TCB

To become an accredited Telecommunications Certification Body, an independent third-party lab must be accredited to ISO/IEC 17065 (2012), titled Conformity assessment-Requirements for bodies certifying products, processes and services, ISO/IEC Standard 17025 (2005), titled General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories, and also incorporate the applicable FCC rules and regulations. In the US the TCB accreditation process is managed by NIST, which has qualified two US accreditation bodies as being in compliance with the standard ISO/IEC 17011 (2004), Conformity assessment – General Requirements for Accreditation bodies accrediting conformity assessment bodies, and therefore authorized to accredit TCBs: the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA).

The FCC Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) has oversight authority for the TCB accrediting process, and will coordinate frequently with ANSI and A2LA to confirm and verify that the veracity of their programs meets acceptable standards for performance. The FCC has a very strong vested interest in keeping this program performing effectively, and will perform frequent assessments to check for any issues or to find areas for improvement in the authorized program accreditation bodies.

In turn, ANSI and A2LA will accredit qualifying US TCBs that meet the requirements of both the TCB certification program requirements, which are defined and set by NIST, and the ISO/IEC 17065 (2012) standard. Also, as mentioned, foreign certification bodies (non-US) can become a recognized TCB for issuing FCC grant certificates if a government-to-government MRA is in effect between the US and the foreign country. However it will be up to the designated accrediting authority in the foreign country to assess the TCB and evaluate it to determine the competency of the organization, and this accrediting authority must meet the criteria found in the standard ISO/IEC 17011 (2004).

The TCBs will select the specific products they choose to certify, which will define the scope of their TCB accreditation. There are three scopes covering unlicensed radio service equipment (Scope A), unlicensed radio frequency devices (Scope B), and telephone terminal equipment (Scope C). Scopes A and B each have four sub-categories, which can be seen in Table 1. The TCB may be accredited for all scopes and sub-categories, or a limited set, depending on their preferences and capabilities, so prospective customers should always verify that their equipment type falls under one of the accredited scope for the specific TCB.

However wide or narrow the scope of the TCB accreditation, each TCB is required to have the essential competency to perform the mandated set of tests for each scope and sub-category of scope selected. This will be verified during the ISO/IEC 17025 (2005) accreditation process.

 

TCB Scope A – Unlicensed Radio Frequency Devices
A1 Low power transmitters operating on frequencies below 1 GHz (with the exception of spread spectrum devices). emergency alert systems, unintentional radiators (e.g., personal computers and associated peripherals and TV Interface Devices) and consumer ISM devices subject to certification (e.g., microwave ovens, RF lighting and other consumer ISM devices)
A2 Low power transmitters operating on frequencies about 1 GHz, with the exception of spread spectrum devices
A3 Unlicensed Personal Communication Service (PCS) Devices
A4 Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (UNI) devices and low power transmitters using spread spectrum techniques
TCB Scope B – Licensed Radio Service Equipment
B1 Commercial Mobile Services in 47 CFR Parts 20, 22 (cellular), 24, 25, and 27
B2 General Mobile Radio Services in 47 CFR Parts 22 (non-cellular), 73, 74, 90, 95, and 97
B3 Maritime and Aviation Radio Services in 47 CFR Parts 80 and 87
B4 Microwave Radio Services in 47 CFR Parts 27, 74, and 101
TCB Scope C – Telephone Terminal Equipment
C1 Telephone terminal equipment in 47 CFR Part 68

Table 1: List of TCB Scope of Accreditation Categories


What Does a TCB Do?

So if you are a product manufacturer seeking FCC certification for a device that falls under the scope of the TCB program, you probably are interested in finding out more about the process and requirements. It is important to
find a TCB that you are comfortable working with, as there will be a need for frequent interactions and exchanges of information throughout the process, especially if this is your first experience with certifying a product.

The TCB is responsible for testing, evaluating, and reviewing the product, to verify that it meets all of the applicable FCC rules and regulations. To do this, the manufacturer needs to provide fully functioning device samples, technical documentation, and operating instructions that will enable to fully investigate the operating abilities and parameters, so that they can render a valid and fair decision on the conformity of the product.

As mentioned, the compliance testing has to be performed in a test lab facility that has been accredited as meeting the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025. The test data and results are incorporated into an evaluation test report, which plays a big part in the review process. The decision to certify the product will be based on the examination of the test report, to verify compliance with the FCC requirements for the specific product type, along with the review of any other relevant supporting documentation. If the device is then deemed to be in compliance, then the test lab can render their decision to certify. If it is not found to be in compliance, then the test lab should review the results and shortcomings with the client, so any necessary product changes can be made and incorporated before retesting the product.

If the ISO/IEC 17025-accredited test lab facility is also a TCB accredited to ISO/IEC 17065 (2012), then there must be separation of responsibilities at the TCB between those that are performing the evaluation of a device, and those that are making the decision to certify the device. This is to ensure an autonomous review process takes place to impartially review the findings, so a correct ruling can be made based on the findings. The ISO/IEC 17065 standard requires that the individuals that perform the TCB evaluation functions, such as type-testing, report generation, and assessing the supporting documentation to verify compliance with the applicable FCC rules and regulations, must not be the same individuals that perform the TCB certification functions of reviewing all of the provided information and documentation, and then making the decision to certify the product.

A TCB is required to be impartial, meaning that they are responsible for making sure that any other activities it is involved in with other related groups or organizations does not impact or influence the fairness, neutrality, or confidentiality concerning their ruling on certification for the product. In addition, the TCB is not allowed to give guidance or provide consulting services to the client concerning techniques for resolving the issues which prevent the specific certification that is being sought.

While the FCC allows for a wide range of different types of devices to be certified under the TCB program, it still requires certain specific functions to be performed solely by the FCC, which it does not allow TCBs to perform. As defined in the Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), TCBs are not allowed to grant waivers to FCC rules, nor certify devices that don’t have applicable FCC rules, or take action on any rules that are not clear. Also, TCBs can not authorize the transfer of control for a grant, and are not allowed to interpret any FCC rules or regulations.

Previously there was a “TCB Exclusion List,” which specifically detailed types of products that TCBs were not allowed to certify. However, this has changed under a FCC procedure known as Permit-but-Ask. The intent of this option is to allow the TCBs to expand the types of devices for which they can issue grants, while allowing the FCC to have oversight for new technology devices that do not have specific FCC guidance available, or for cases where the client is planning to demonstrate compliance by using some alternative to the published procedures or guidelines.


Resources for Using the FCC TCB Program

If you are a manufacturer wanting to obtain FCC certification for equipment that falls under the scope of the TCB program, my strongest advice is for you to first learn all you can about the program requirements, and to learn from the experience of others who have already been through this process. There are two great resources available to you on the Internet, the first is on the FCC website, and the other is for a TCB industry organization called the Telecommunications Certification Body Council (TCBC). Let’s start with the FCC.


The FCC Knowledge Database

The FCC rules and regulations are famous for being complex and sometimes ambiguous, and it is hard to find all of the specific information and details that will help to ensure the compliance of your product. To help this situation, the FCC created the Knowledge Database (KDB) system (apps.fcc.gov/oetcf/kdb/index.cfm), which is a part of the FCC website, in order to provide additional guidance and assistance to manufacturers, TCBs, test labs, and other interested stakeholders.

KDB publications are created by FCC staff members, and are intended to provide clearer guidance and explanations on specific topics, outside of the FCC rules and regulations. While the KDB is intended to assist the public in following FCC requirements, the KDB publications do not constitute FCC rules; the guidance is not binding on the FCC, and it will not prevent them from making a conflicting or different ruling on any issue that comes to them for resolution.

You can search for whatever topic you are interested in, with the available keyword search engine, or use the more advanced search options. Currently there are about 200 active KDB publications available, with popular topics such as the Permit-but-Ask procedure, DFS/UNII requirements, and test procedures. One warning; there doesn’t seem to be a logical order for the numbering system for the KDB publications and revision levels, so make sure you verify that you are utilizing the most current version, as updates can be frequent for certain categories. Most KDB documents have a 6-digit code, and if you know the code you can search for it by just using the code. Also know that you will usually have to reference several KDB publications to find all of the information or guidance you are seeking; it is not common to find everything in one document.

You may notice that there are two areas in the KDB, one is public and accessible by anyone on the Internet, but the other is restricted to TCBs only. The KDBs available on the public site usually give FCC guidance or interpretation of the rules for a general category or technology, and do not cover specific applications or devices, because of rules on confidentiality.


The Telecommunications Certification Body Council

The TCBC is a not-for-profit industry consortium of TCBs, the FCC and other government regulators, accrediting bodies, test laboratories, equipment manufacturers, product developers, consultants, and other interested stakeholders. The purpose of the TCB Council, as stated on their website, is to “provide a forum for periodic dialogue between the FCC and the TCB’s and to facilitate on-going activities geared toward the improvement of TCB technical and administrative performance.”

The TCBC has a website (www.tcbcouncil.org) containing general information on the organization and benefits of joining. The members of this organization have a wealth of experience in all aspects of the TCB program, and members also have access to monthly conference calls with the FCC, training materials, and discounted registrations for the twice-yearly training workshops on the latest compliance requirements featuring presenters from the FCC, Industry Canada, the European Union, and other international government regulators, in addition to the TCBs.

Anyone that is interested can become a member of the TCB Council. Membership is extended to a company, and any employees of the member company can receive TCBC membership benefits without any additional cost. Any FCC designated TCB can join as a full TCB council member, and any other company of individual can join as an associate member.

My hope is you now have enough background for an understanding of the TCB program and requirements to get started on the certification process. You will still have a lot more to learn, but with the provided Internet resources you have connections to the sources that can help you to obtain FCC approvals for your products.


Internet Resources


FCC Telecommunications Certification Bodies (TCB) System

FCC Knowledge Database (KDB) System

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) EMC and Telecommunications Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA)

American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Accreditation Services

American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA)

International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC)

International Standards Organization (ISO)

ANSI Document Store (ISO/IEC documents are available at the ANSI website)

The Telecommunications Certification Body Council (TCBC)

author maynard-markMark Maynard is a Director at SIEMIC, a global compliance testing and certification services firm with strategic locations worldwide. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE, and also on the Board of Directors for both the IEEE Product Safety Engineering Society and the Telecommunication Certification Body Council. Mark holds two degrees from Texas State University, a BS in Mathematics, and a BAAS in Marketing and Business. Prior to SIEMIC, he worked for over 20 years at Dell, in international regulatory compliance and product certifications, with various compliance engineering positions including wireless, telecom, EMC, product safety, and environmental design. He can be reached at mark.maynard@siemic.com.

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