FCC Telegraphs Decision with Strong Letter on Wi-Fi Blocking

The FCC may be telegraphing (sorry) its position on how it will handle the Marriott et al. petition in which the hotel giant, a real-estate trust, and the hotel industry trade group argues that they have a right to create false traffic to block Wi-Fi networks on their premises in the interests of service quality and security. The FCC's press release today opens with:

WARNING: Wi-Fi Blocking is Prohibited
Persons or Businesses Causing Intentional Interference to Wi-Fi Hot Spots Are Subject to Enforcement Action

(As the old joke goes: "strong letter follows!")

As I explained in late December at Boing Boing, Marriott's initial petition was broad, technically inaccurate in places, and asserted definitions and rights that aren't available for use in the unlicensed spectrum. Marriott &co. earlier in January filed a comment that backed off from many claims in its petition, but as far as I can tell either didn't or isn't allowed to withdraw or amend the original proposal. The chain paid $600,000 to settle an investigation and agreed to an FCC consent decree that requires it to report on its actions.

Many comments from companies and individuals have also been filed, most of which harangue hoteliers for wanting to block the use of personal (smartphone/tablet) and portable (MiFi-like) hotspots to preserve a cash cow of in-room and event Internet fees.

However, the IT community is somewhat concerned, as the technique Marriott employed is part of a suite of tools used to keep the radio-frequency (RF) environment in a building, corporate campus, or academic campus clean and functional. Personal and portable hotspots can contribute to reducing throughput or making networks less functional. I was part of a great discussion on the Packet Pushers podcast about the extent to which those devices cause problems, and how this situation will shake out.

The FCC's WARNING would indicate that it won't side with Marriott, or even with Cisco, which filed a comment suggesting that a limited ability to block "rogue" networks for very specific reasons would be useful.

The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference.

The memo notes the FCC has received reports of similar blocking elsewhere and urges people to file a complaint if Wi-Fi blocking is suspected (via 1-888-CALL-FCC or its complaints form).

This is a positive move for preventing hotels and others from seizing control over spectrum they don't own or license, and it's a good affirmation of individual rights as well. But it doesn't solve the spectrum usage problem, nor clarify what IT people outside of public accommodations, like hotels, should do. The rogue-blocking software they use may be illegal, based on the Marriott consent order and then this follow-up. As co-panelist on the Packet Pushers, Lee Badman, tweeted today:

Read Lee's post for more insight on what network administrators are faced with. As Lee noted on the podcast, the lack of guidelines for co-existence of tens of millions of tiny, often high-powered movable hotspots with fixed Wi-Fi networks has caused a collision. Marriott's solution isn't the right one — but some path forward that doesn't criminalize an IT administrator will be needed.

Update: Later in the day, the FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, stated unequivocally:

Consumers must get what they pay for. The Communications Act prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi. Marriott’s request seeking the FCC’s blessing to block guests’ use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle.

An FCC commissioner also stated today that she would like the FCC to dismiss the Marriott petition "quickly."