FCC Fines Another Company Over Wi-Fi Blocking

Josh WolfordTechnology

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The Federal Communications Commission has fined an internet provider $750,000 for using Wi-Fi monitoring systems to jam people's personal hotspots at hotels and convention centers.

The FCC says that Smart City, described as an Internet and telecommunications provider for conventions, meeting centers, and hotels, was guilty of blocking people's mobile hotspots in order to force them to pay for Smart City's Wi-Fi services.

“It is unacceptable for any company to charge consumers exorbitant fees to access the Internet while at the same time blocking them from using their own personal Wi-Fi hotspots to access the Internet,” said Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. “All companies who seek to use technologies that block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections are on notice that such practices are patently unlawful.”

How exorbitant? According to the FCC, Smart City wanted $80 for a single day of Wi-Fi. And if visitors to that particular conference and convention powered by Smart City didn't pay up, they would find their own Wi-Fi hotspots blocked.

In January, the FCC warned it was going to "aggressively investigate cases of Wi-Fi blocking.

“In the 21st Century, Wi-Fi, represents an essential on-ramp to the internet. Personal Wi-Fi networks, or 'hot spots,' are an important way that consumers connect to the Internet. Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal,” said the FCC in an Enforcement Advisory.

“Wi-Fi blocking violates Section 333 of the Communications Act, as amended. 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.”

Around that time, the regulatory agency and Marriott reached a $600,000 settlement for blocking customer's personal Wi-Hi hotspots.

The FCC states, unequivocally, that this behavior is illegal.

No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network. Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.

So if you notice this happening, speak up.

Update: In response, Smart City has issued this statement:

Our goal has always been to provide world-class services to our customers, and our company takes regulatory compliance extremely seriously. We are not gatekeepers to the Internet. As recommended by the Department of Commerce and Department of Defense, we have occasionally used technologies made available by major equipment manufacturers to prevent wireless devices from significantly interfering with and disrupting the operations of neighboring exhibitors on our convention floors. This activity resulted in significantly less than one percent (1%) of all devices being deauthenticated and these same technologies are widely used by major convention centers across the globe as well as many federal agencies.

We have always acted in good faith, and we had no prior notice that the FCC considered the use of this standardized, ‘available-out-of-the-box’ technology to be a violation of its rules. But when we were contacted by the FCC in October 2014, we ceased using the technology in question.

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.

Image via Will Folsom, Flickr Creative Commons

Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf