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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.

If your only understanding of FCC regs and RF systems comes from one of the wireless networking certification programs or what the vendors tell you, which seems to include a significant percentage of the wireless engineers, you may not sufficiently understand enough to question the vendors' marketing material. By far, the best wireless engineers I've met either have an amateur radio license, prior military communications experience, or have spent as much time learning how the RF portion of their systems work as they have learning how the software portion works.

Wireless engineers need to understand they are responsible not only for the technical operation of these systems, but the legal operation, as well. They need to understand all the rules and regulations involved, not just channelization issues mentioned by the vendors. They need to push back harder against vendors when things aren't as they seem. As the Marriott case shows all too well, ultimately it is the responsibility of the person/entity deploying the system to ensure they got things right. I'm pretty sure that somewhere, a wireless engineer rues the day he realized he could use his IPS against other spectrum users. Everyone else should work to avoid repeating his mistake.

What role do the WLAN product vendors play in all this? What should they do going forward?

In my opinion, the Wi-Fi vendors have done a terrible job of marketing their products properly and responsibly. They do their best to present their products as technology so advanced, they're magical, one-size-fits-all solutions; you need not concern

yourself with the myriad, tedious details of designing and operating a wireless network. If you do ask about federal regulations or product shortcomings, the vendors pour on the snake-oil to obfuscate the issues. Just sign on the dotted line, click a few buttons and the wireless system will configure and defend itself automagically. Paraphrasing what another engineer told me recently, the wireless vendors have created the expectation that Wi-Fi has endless possibilities without any drawbacks.

In the real world, Wi-Fi operates under the laws of physics and is neither limitless, nor perfect. Designing wireless systems, especially Wi-Fi, requires optimizing trade-offs in coverage, capacity, speed, security, complexity, reliability and affordability. Rather than recommend systems designed to extract the maximum cash from each customer, vendors must work with customers responsibly to design wireless systems optimized for the customer's requirements. This is especially true in hospitals and healthcare. I've seen vendor recommendations that would likely violate not just FCC regs, but FDA medical devices regs, too. If the wireless engineers and hospital staff don't know the rules, patients could suffer. Wi-Fi can do a lot, but it has limits. Sometimes, those limits means Wi-Fi is not the proper technology for the job.


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