The Federal Communications Commission has served notice that Smart City Networks is unlikely to be the last organization to face enforcement action for blocking private hotspot WiFi signals in public spaces.
The FCC entered into a consent agreement with Smart City Networks in which the company agreed to pay the commission a fine of $750,000 and agreed to stop blocking WiFi hotspots at conventions and other events where the company broadcast its own WiFi service.
Prior to this, Smart City would block WiFi signals by sending a de-authorizing code to WiFi radios, making them drop their connections. To overcome this problem, Smart City helpfully offered its own WiFi service for $80 a day.
A consent agreement is a legal procedure in which the party that’s found in violation agrees to stop doing whatever it was doing without admitting that it violated any laws or regulations. The government, in return, doesn’t charge them with a crime.
Had Smart City decided to fight the charges in court, it’s conceivable that it could have been found not guilty of blocking WiFi signals, but as is usually the case in situations like this, the company’s chances were small, and the downsides in terms of fines and potentially jail time for senior corporate executives were high.
The problem that the FCC tried to deal with in this case is potentially huge, and it goes far beyond just Smart City this year and a case involving Marriott in 2014.
The FCC Enforcement Bureau “has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal WiFi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises,” according to a statement provided to eWEEK by an FCC spokesperson.
“As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference,” the statement said.
The commission also served notice that it was already looking into other complaints about WiFi signal blocking.
“Following the (Marriott) settlement, the Enforcement Bureau has received several complaints that other commercial WiFi network operators may be disrupting the legitimate operation of personal WiFi hot spots. The Bureau is investigating such complaints and will take appropriate action against violators.”
That statement was from a warning that the FCC issued in January 2015 informing everyone that blocking of WiFi is illegal. Previously, the FCC had fined Marriott for blocking WiFi hotspots at its Gaylord Opryland property in Tennessee.
The FCC’s actions on WiFi blocking are parallel to a similar fight the agency has had regarding cell phone blocking, in which businesses, notably theaters and some restaurants, were blocking cellular signals in an effort to reduce interruptions due to phone calls.
In the consent decree that Smart City and the FCC signed, Smart City has agreed to stop blocking WiFi signals and has agreed that it won’t resume that activity.
Smart City Fine Not the End of FCC Action on WiFi Signal Blocking
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.