FCC Fines Marriott $600K for WiFi Blocking/Jamming
  • by Ian Framson
  • Oct 03, 2014
  • WiFi, Marriot, Tradeshow Internet

TSI's customers and consumers in general are protected by several FCC laws preserving their rights to bring in their own WiFi hotspots and select their own Internet Service Providers at events.

- FCC Over-the-Air Reception Devices (OTARD) law prohibits building rules restricting use of wireless equipment and antennas

- FCC clarifies consumer protection extends to hotels, conference and convention centers (FCC Public Notice DA 04-1844)

On Friday 10/3/14, the FCC released this order & consent decree in a landmark case against Marriott providing further legal precedent protecting consumer freedom of choice.

As an ISP in the trade show industry, we could write an essay on this topic. I think there are a few key clarification points from the FCC's order and consent decree worth highlighting.

1. The regulation of WiFi signals, along with any FCC-approved access points which broadcast WiFi (47 CFR 15), is the exclusive domain of the FCC. Even on private property such as inside hotels and convention centers, in the U.S. it is the FCC who regulates wireless spectrum. Not the venue. Not the show organizer. And certainly not the in-house ISP. It's not quite on the order of magnitude of slavery vs freedom; but the freedom to use your own WiFi access point at an event, in the eyes of the law, is now an inalienable right for every American.

2. As such, the FCC grants certain rights (and responsibilities) to users of WiFi access points, whether they are consumers, attendees, exhibitors, show management staff, ISPs, venue operators, etc. Regardless of whether they are on public or private property, everyone is granted the freedom to use a FCC-approved WiFi access point of their own choosing, without being willfully or maliciously interfered with by others, and of course only so long as they do not willfully or maliciously interfere with others. The willful/malicious language here is an important differentiator since all WiFi access points can cause some amount of unintentional interference.

3. It is irrelevant if the WiFi access point being used is a personal MiFi, a cell phone in WiFi hotspot mode, one of TSI's 4G Internet Kits, or an expensive enterprise class access point installed by the in-house ISP. Also irrelevant are the number of users connecting to the WiFi access point and whether or not the operator derives income by selling access. Same rights, same class. Just because a venue or their in-house ISP partner is in the business of being an internet service provider, doesn't mean they receive any superordinate ownership or usage rights to the public WiFi spectrum they use for their "official" network. Under the law, an attendee or exhibitor with their own personal WiFi hotspot has the same rights to use the same spectrum as any ISP or venue. If both WiFi networks happen to be unintentionally interfering with each other, there are ways to coordinate and discuss, as rational humans, without resorting to intentional and illegal WiFi jamming/blocking. Without these equal rights, you run the risk of "for the greater good" justifications leading to "exclusivity/prohibition" language, leading to WiFi jamming, which as we've all seen, can lead to a very slippery slope toward extortion.

There are some natural consequences of this legal paradigm created by the FCC. There is a risk of unintentional interference. When you have lots of WiFi access points in the same vicinity, the 24 channels allocated to WiFi spectrum can get overloaded, rendering a worse experience for some/all users. One good (non-technological) solution would be to have someone (i.e. show management, the general service contractor, perhaps the in-house ISP) coordinate and suggest (but not require) folks set their WiFi access points to broadcast on non-overlapping channels. With cooperation and coordination you can achieve much more than with heavy handed and illegal tactics such as WiFi deauthentication/jamming.

To help avoid unintentional interference, TSI configures its routers by default to broadcast on the less crowded 5 GHz (802.11a) spectrum. This is one significant advantage of using our kit over a consumer-grade device such as a MiFi.

I think the key takeaway here for show organizers and venues is if you don't want to risk FCC fines, don't usurp the FCC and don't try to regulate/jam/block the legal use of WiFi access points. The key takeaway for exhibitors is - carry on!