FCC’s $718,000 fine for blocking Wi-Fi should be welcomed by wireless industry exhibitors

In Featured News by Wireless Estimator

The Federal Communications Commission plans on collecting a $718,000 fine against M.C. Dean for blocking consumers’ Wi-Fi connections at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The federal agency’s action is expected to be applauded by wireless infrastructure exhibitors that are held hostage by conference centers to purchase Wi-Fi access at exorbitant fees in addition to price-gouging and special handling labor practices for drayage that provides Freeman and other convention managers a license to print money.

In order to avoid pricey convention center charges, many exhibitors opt to use hotspot devices, which transform 4G data from their cell phone provider into Wi-Fi signals. Some smartphones are also able to beam out Wi-Fi.

But trying to find out if it is a bad signal or you’re being blocked is difficult to identify.

“I was really ticked last year when we were introducing our new tower mapping tool,” said an exhibitor who requested not to be identified. “Only on occasion could I bring up the program and then it would sit there and grind. I can’t remember what the show wanted for Wi-Fi, but I do recall that it was outrageous.”

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau investigation found that M.C. Dean, Inc., one of the nation’s largest electrical contracting companies, headquartered in Dulles, Va., blocked personal mobile “hotspots” of convention visitors and exhibitors who tried to use their own data plans to connect to the Internet rather than paying M.C. Dean substantial fees to use the company’s Wi-Fi service.

“Consumers are tired of being taken advantage of by hotels and convention centers that block their personal Wi-Fi connections,” said Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau.  “This disturbing practice must come to an end. It is patently unlawful for any company to maliciously block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections.”

“As the exclusive provider of Wi-Fi access at the Baltimore Convention Center, M.C. Dean charges exhibitors and visitors as much as $1,095 per event for Wi-Fi access,” the FCC said in a statement.

Last year, the Commission received a complaint from a company that provides equipment that enables users to establish hotspots at conventions and trade shows.  The complainant alleged that M.C. Dean blocked hotspots its customers had tried to establish at the Baltimore Convention Center.  After receiving the complaint, Enforcement Bureau field agents visited the venue on multiple occasions and confirmed that Wi-Fi blocking activity was taking place.

The Enforcement Bureau’s investigation found that M.C. Dean engaged in Wi-Fi blocking at the Baltimore Convention Center on dozens of occasions in the last year.  During the investigation, M.C. Dean revealed that it used the “Auto Block Mode” on its Wi-Fi system to block consumer-created Wi-Fi hotspots at the venue.

The Wi-Fi system’s manual describes this mode as “shoot first, and ask questions later.”  M.C. Dean’s Wi-Fi blocking activity also appears to have blocked Wi-Fi hotspots located outside of the venue, including passing vehicles.

This is the FCC’s third major enforcement action regarding Wi-Fi blocking.  In October 2014, the FCC fined Marriott International, Inc. and Marriott Hotel Services, Inc. $600,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking activities at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee.  In August 2015, the FCC fined Smart City Holdings, LLC $750,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking at multiple convention centers across the country.

FCC Commissioner Pai says it’s a headline grabbing ploy
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said in a statement that  he wasn’t in agreement with the M.C. Dean fine.

“Before the FCC can enforce rules, rules must exist. That’s why I believe that the FCC should adopt rules that limit Wi-Fi blocking. Wi-Fi blocking occurs when a person uses an unlicensed Part 15 device to intentionally disrupt the operation of another unlicensed Part 15 device, such as a mobile hotspot that a consumer sets up to connect a Wi-Fi-enabled device to the Internet via his or her smartphone. I also believe that those rules should make clear that no person has carte blanche to intentionally disrupt another person’s Wi-Fi connection,” said Pai.

He said over a year ago, parties petitioned the FCC to enact such regulations. “They asked the FCC to establish clear rules of the road through an industry-wide rulemaking. As one might expect, commenters responding to the petition offered very different takes on what any such rules should look like. Some argued that Wi-Fi blocking should not be allowed under any circumstance. Others argued that deauthentication is part of the IEEE 802.11 standard and should be permitted when necessary to ensure network security, such as to shut down access-point spoofing or other cyberattacks. Regardless, a broad cross section of groups agreed that the FCC should provide guidance,” Pai said.

But instead of doing so, either in response to that petition, Pai said Commission leadership made it clear that such guidance would not be forthcoming, and the agency ultimately dismissed the petition.

“In the end, this decision is the latest evidence that the FCC’s enforcement process has gone off the rails. Instead of dispensing justice by applying the law to the facts, the Commission is yet again focused on issuing headline-grabbing fines. And while I have no doubt that this NAL (Notice of Apparent Liability) will generate plenty of press, I cannot support this lawless item.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly also dissented on the fine. “I respectfully requested that the commission undertake a rulemaking or other proceeding to consider this issue more thoroughly, instead of pursuing an enforcement action,” he said, saying that he does not agree with the “expansive reading” of the statute contained in this item. “That brings us to another suspect enforcement item without the underlying work being done.”

Hilton Hotels fined for stonewalling a Wi-Fi blocking investigation
On Monday, the FCC fined Hilton $25,000 for impeding an investigation regarding the chain allegedly blocking customers’ personal Wi-Fi hotspots.

In November 2014, the FCC sent Hilton correspondence requesting information regarding its Wi-Fi blocking practices. However, after a full year, the FCC says Hilton has failed to provide responses for the vast majority of its properties.

LeBlanc said, “To permit any company to unilaterally redefine the scope of our investigation would undermine the independent search for the truth and the due administration of the law.”

“Throughout this inquiry, we have cooperated with the FCC, providing extensive background and details in a timely and efficient manner,” a Hilton Worldwide spokesman said. “We believe that the FCC has no basis for vastly expanding the initial inquiry based on a single complaint at a single Hilton hotel.”