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Wi-Fi blocking debate far from over

Bob Brown | Aug. 31, 2015
US$750K fine levied against Smart City by FCC for WiFi blocking has WLAN pros, vendors talking again.

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Following the FCC’s warning in January that it would no longer tolerate the Marriotts of the world blocking visitors’ WiFi hotspots, I set a reminder on my calendar to revisit the topic six months later. After all, the issue of WiFi blocking sparked strong reactions from IT pros, end users and vendors of wireless LAN products early in the year, and I figured it wasn’t over yet. 

So I started by making an inquiry directly to Marriott Global CIO Bruce Hoffmeister, who foisted me on to a company spokesman, who “respectfully declined” to connect me with anyone for an update on how Marriott is now dealing with perceived threats to its network. He simply directed me back to Marriott’s statement from January that it would behave itself, no doubt hoping the hotel chain could further distance itself from the $600K fine that the FCC hit it with, as well as the rest of the bad publicity. I also inquired at the FCC, which in Marriott-like fashion, referred me back to the agency’s last statement on the matter from January, and in a follow up, said it can’t comment on whether any new investigations are underway. Most of the WLAN vendors and administrators were pretty quiet, too when I made the rounds a few weeks back.

While all this was demoralizing, my intuition about this story still having legs was validated last week (while I was on vacation, of course) when the FCC slapped an Internet service provider called Smart City with a $750,000 fine for pulling a Marriott at several locations and blocking personal WiFi hotspots. Smart City was found not be protecting its network against any specific security threat, but rather, trying to force people to pay for its Internet service.

So despite Marriott’s best efforts, the hotel chain’s past shenanigans were dredged up again in coverage of the Smart City story. Because now all of a sudden, everyone’s talking again.

One vendor spokesman expressed surprise that the FCC had once again levied a big fine on a WiFi blocker: “Trying to control and govern the unlicensed spectrum is a tall order, especially in venues and public areas."

One university network architect, Lee Badman, published an open letter to the FCC on his blog following the FCC's Smart City order in which he says “as a WLAN professional I implore you to recognize that these actions are creating significant amounts of confusion for enterprise Wi-Fi environments and those of us who keep them operational for the millions of business clients that use them every day.” He goes on to list 5 big questions hanging over the WLAN space in the wake of the latest FCC ruling on WiFi blocking. 


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