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How not to get slammed by the FCC for Wi-Fi blocking

Bob Brown | Feb. 11, 2015
Healthcare giant’s wireless communications manager offers advice for navigating WiFi waters.

Rick Hampton, the wireless communications manager for Boston-based Partners Healthcare, has seen the dialogue among network professionals heating up in the wake of the FCC's sternly-worded enforcement warning about illegal Wi-Fi blocking and says it's no wonder the commission is fired up.

He contends that the way in which many organizations have set up their wireless networks, based on overhyped products that have led them to believe anything goes, just won't fly in a world where people increasingly are using personal Wi-Fi hotspots to get safe and easy Internet connectivity over unlicensed airwaves wherever they happen to be. After all, the FCC was created by Congress back in the 1930s to put the kibosh on just such intentional interference of radio devices.

A 42-year veteran of the wireless industry and self-described privacy advocate, Hampton says the FCC was correct to fine Marriott International last year for shutting down convention center visitor hotspots via de-authentication messages. He advises other organizations across various industries to review and if necessary change their practices before they get nailed, too.

Here's what Hampton, who has worked on everything from military systems to medical devices (and has spent time working with the FDA and FCC on wireless medical systems), says about running a wireless network that will serve your organization and not get you in trouble with the government.

To start, what's your general take on the FCC's Marriott case and its follow-up enforcement warning?

It's an unfortunate, but fairly predictable result of what happens when someone doesn't pay attention to the rules and thinks they won't get caught if they break them. For this discussion, let's leave out the issue of how Marriott's monetization of their Wi-Fi network factored into all this. Marriott claimed they deauthenticated customers from the customer's hotspot devices in order to protect Marriott's Wi-Fi network from interference caused by those hotspot devices. But the rules don't allow this. Look at the pertinent part of the rules, contained in Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 15.5:

15.5  General conditions of operation.

15.5(a), means no one has a vested right to use a given frequency any more than anyone else. We must share and share alike. Even if you turned your system on first, you have to share the spectrum with everyone else who comes along later.

15.5(b) means you can use a frequency as long as you don't cause harmful interference to other users. For unlicensed devices, which include Wi-Fi, the FCC has consistently interpreted this to mean that interference incidental to the operation of a properly functioning device is allowable. Someone using a properly operating hotspot in your vicinity has as much a right to operate their device as you do operating your device, even if the two systems cause problems with each other. Further, the Commission has also consistently interpreted this to mean that intentional interference meant to deny someone else from using the frequency is illegal.


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