Has FCC 'gone off the rails' with latest Wi-Fi blocking fines?

It turns out that critics of the FCC's crackdown over the past year on organizations purposefully blocking consumers' Wi-Fi hotspots might actually have a couple of kindred spirits on the Commission itself.

In the FCC's announcement this week that it plans to fine a big electrical contractor named M.C. Dean $718,000 for blocking consumers' Wi-Fi connections at the Baltimore Convention Center, it notes that Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissented. The FCC action, however, was approved by a 3-2 vote, with the only two Republicans voting against it.

MORE: FCC still has a ton of explaining to do on Wi-Fi blocking rules | How not to get slammed by the FCC 

These are the first public statements from commissioners coming out about the FCC's actions against Wi-Fi blocking, which began with a $600,000 fine against Marriott last year and then more recently, against ISP Smart City over the summer. The FCC also issued a stern warning against illegal Wi-Fi blocking to kick off 2015. 

Agit Pai FCC Reuters/Photographer: Yuri Gripas

FCC Commissioner Agit Pai on M.C. Dean Wi-Fi blocking fine: "In the end, this decision is the latest evidence that the FCC’s enforcement process has gone off the rails."

Echoing concerns of wireless LAN administrators and vendors we've interviewed over the past year, the dissenting Commissioners slam the FCC for failing to clarify what exactly is illegal or not. While we haven't spoken to anyone who thinks it's OK for organizations, such as those in the hospitality industry, to block users' Wi-Fi in order to force them to pay pricey fees for hotel or convention center Internet access, some do say there are legitimate security, privacy and net management reasons to block Wi-Fi access.

Commissioner Pai starts off his dissent with this simple statement:

"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."

Pai goes on to note that more than a year ago parties urged the FCC to come up with such formal rules, but their petition was dismissed. Some argued for no leeway on Wi-Fi blocking, whereas others claimed deauthentication is part of the IEEE 802.11 standard and can be used to safeguard networks via many WLAN products.

A key part of the debate comes down to whether the FCC should really be able to cite section 333 of the Communications Act, which states in part “[n]o person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications,” when the issue at hand involves Part 15 devices that operate in unlicensed spectrum. Pai argues against using section 333 in cases like that of M.C. Dean.

In concluding his dissent, Pai indicates his indignation with the FCC's direction on Wi-Fi blocking actions:

"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 [Notice of Apparent Liability] will generate plenty of press, I cannot support this lawless item. Therefore, I respectfully dissent."

Commissioner O'Rielly, meanwhile, in his dissent makes clear that he's been trying -- unsuccessfully -- to convince others at the FCC to establish a rulemaking regarding Wi-Fi blocking rather than just doling out fines through a "suspect enforcement" approach. He raises questions about whether the rules in place are designed more specifically for jammers using "mechanisms that intentionally cause electromagnetic interference," rather than systems that use "deauthentification frames, which do not increase the level of energy overpowering communications signals in an area."


One other interesting revelation from the FCC's Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture regarding M.C. Dean is that two WLAN vendors used by the fined organization are named. In this case, it is Xirrus and Cisco (used as the backup system). Public documents related to the Marriott, Hilton and Smart City Wi-Fi blocking cases did not mention any vendors.

In the M.C. Dean case, the electrical contractor had been using mainly Xirrus gear to restrict Wi-Fi channels, according to the FCC investigation, and making users pay between $795 and $1,095 if they wanted to gain access to the restricted channels.  

"In response to the Bureau’s investigation, M.C. Dean admitted that it deployed deauthentication equipment at the [Baltimore Convention Center] from October 2012 until December 13, 2014, and that it used an auto-block feature that automatically detected and indiscriminately deauthenticated any unknown AP. Specifically, M.C. Dean’s responses revealed that it deployed a Xirrus platform at the BCC with an autodeauthentication function that M.C. Dean affirmatively turned on when it started using the system. The Xirrus User Manual calls the auto-block function employed by M.C. Dean the ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ mode.'"

In an interview with Xirrus CEO Shane Buckley in late August, he told Network World that he'd really like to see the FCC look at the whole topic of Wi-Fi blocking "very carefully." He added: "There are lots of good reasons why WiFi blocking is a requirement in certain markets and a distinct benefit from a security perspective in others.”

And looking at it from the end user's point of view, Xirrus last month announced new technology designed to make public Wi-Fi networks safer for people to use. Not that people necessarily are going to want to use them if hotels and convention centers are going to gouge them for the privilege.

This story, "Has FCC 'gone off the rails' with latest Wi-Fi blocking fines?" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

Discover what your peers are reading. Sign up for our FREE email newsletters today!