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FCC-Marriott WiFi Blocking Fine Opens Pandora's Box

The Federal Communications Commission just hit the Marriott chain with a $600,000 fine for WLAN-related activities in one of its hotels in Nashville. WiFi users may see the decision as a victory for personal WiFi, but wireless admins are left scratching their heads over the broader implications of the FCC's action.

Anyone who has ever taught or attended a formal wireless networking class has heard that the nice thing about WiFi is it operates in unlicensed spectrum -- and the bad thing about WiFi is that it operates in unlicensed spectrum. The simple premise that anybody can essentially use any device that the FCC has approved for a given unlicensed frequency range is at the root of Marriott's troubles. Though $600K may be a drop in the bucket for a major hotel chain, the aftershocks of this case could be felt far and wide on other business wireless networks.

Simply put, the FCC found fault with Marriott network administrators using the containment features built into most current enterprise WLAN systems to deny customers the use of their own personal hotspots and leaving them with no option other than paying for use of Marriott's own WiFi network. The rates for access to that network are very expensive: up to $1,000 per device, according to the FCC.

It's hard to defend Marriott's actions, given that profit motive was behind the MiFi containments, but the FCC has opened a Pandora's box of confusion for the WLAN industry and business WiFi networks as it disciplines Marriott's management.

The FCC declared that "consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center." As an owner of a personal hotspot, I agree. As a WLAN admin, this makes me nervous.

Certainly we all have equal rights to the unlicensed WiFi spectrum. But does that mean that businesses can't prohibit by policy unlicensed devices that can cost real dollars within their premises? Am I OK in the eyes of the FCC if I bring my MiFi into a hospital and disrupt wireless medical equipment connected in a high-density WLAN? Can dozens of reporters show up with MiFis and disrupt my multimillion-dollar stadium WiFi and leave me with no recourse? It would seem so, based on what little guidance came out of the FCC's Marriott decision.

The FCC investigation also concluded that Marriott was jamming mobile hotspots, but not in the way WLAN professionals tend to think of jamming. In Marriott's case, de-authentication packets were used to render customers' MiFi devices inoperable. This isn't RF jamming in the traditional sense.

What's odd about the FCC seemingly expanding the definition of jamming is that RF jammers have always been illegal, yet the FCC has approved the very WiFi equipment used to send the de-authentication packets. WLAN vendors charge a pretty penny for these features, but in the wake of the FCC's Marriott ruling, it would seem they are legally useless.

The ultimate message to businesses from the FCC seems to be this: Anyone can bring any unlicensed wireless device wherever they choose, and it's simply your problem.

Yes, the Marriott in Nashville deserved to be called out for charging users exorbitant rates for WiFi access. But the FCC's rationale falls apart when complicated voice-over-WLAN environments are degraded because visitors prefer to use their own MiFi devices over a company's free WiFi guest access portal. And is it really acceptable to have WiFi door locks and CCTV cameras get interfered with by anyone who chooses to bring a MiFi device, simply because it's all unlicensed?

Many of us have bought into the fact that WLAN can be as good and secure as Ethernet, and the WLAN industry says we shouldn't hesitate to include WiFi in our critical infrastructures. But we need the FCC to provide some clarity. Even if it's not OK to "jam" in whatever form that may take, it ought to be OK to have "Thou shalt not use" policies for our own spaces. The FCC didn't say that's acceptable, but it really needs to at this point.

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