Smart City Fine Not the End of FCC Action on WiFi Signal Blocking

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2015-08-22 Print this article Print
FCC WiFi enforcement

For its part, Smart City has said that while the company believes that it has some legal defense, it felt that the cost of going through the courts would have been substantial.

"While we have strong legal arguments, we've determined that mounting a vigorous defense would ultimately prove too costly and too great a distraction for our leadership team. As a result, we've chosen to work cooperatively with the FCC, and we are pleased to have resolved this matter. We are eager to return our energies to providing leadership to our industry and delivering world-class services to our clients."

The company noted that it was using commercially available out-of-the-box solutions for blocking WiFi, and that it had no reason to believe that the use of such devices was illegal.

While the company has not said what specific products it was using, such blocking technology is part of the security capability of some enterprise WiFi control systems where it's used to block "rogue" access points operating within a company's premises.

In its statement regarding the decree, Smart City asserted that it had no prior warning that the FCC considered WiFi blocking to be illegal. The company also pointed out that while such blocking did take place, its use was extremely rare. Smart City also said that when it heard about the Marriott fine, it stopped blocking WiFi in all cases.

While it's true that the Marriott fine was the first for commercial entities blocking WiFi, the prohibition against intentional interference of radio signals is neither new, nor are fines for doing so unprecedented.

During the years in which I've held both amateur and commercial FCC operating and engineering licenses–and that stretches back more than 50 years–intentional interference with any radio service has always been illegal.

I knew from the day I received my first ham radio license and the day when I received my First Class commercial engineer license that such activities were illegal and that the FCC could, and sometimes did, show up and shut down radio operators that violated the rules.

I suspect that part of whatever confusion may surround WiFi blocking comes from the fact that it's an unlicensed service. This means two things. First, WiFi use doesn't require you to have an FCC license to operate the radios. Second, it means that, as an unlicensed service, you are not allowed to cause any interference to any licensed service.

As an illustration, I can build and operate non-WiFi radios on the same frequencies as WiFi channel 1, which overlaps one of the amateur radio bands. Despite your unlicensed status as a WiFi user, you must stop operating if your signal interferes with mine. Conversely, if I find that you're using that WiFi channel, I have to try to avoid interfering with you.

Perhaps the problem is that too few of the people involved in commercial WiFi were required to get engineer licenses from the FCC. Maybe it's time they were required to do so.


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