FCC's Wi-Fi stop-block order leaves other questions unanswered

While the FCC is cracking down hard on Wi-Fi blocking and blasting Marriott International's request to do just that, the FCC so far hasn't addressed other questions that Marriott and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) put forth in their petition last year.

Filed in August by the Marriott, the AH&LA and Ryman Hospitality Partners, the petition asked for a ruling that would allow them to "manage" their Wi-Fi networks by using equipment authorized by the FCC. The petition was met with a strong backlash from consumers and companies like Google and Microsoft. The hoteliers were accused of blocking personal hotspots, a practice many found abhorrent while the venues themselves charge high prices to use their Wi-Fi.

This week, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau released a stern warning saying Wi-Fi blocking is prohibited, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a statement saying Marriott's request seeking the FCC's blessing to block guests' use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to the basic principle put forth in the Communications Act that prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel went so far as to say she'd  like to see the FCC dismiss the Marriott petition "without delay."

Hotels like the Marriott use network management systems made by various vendors, including Aruba Networks, Cisco and Ruckus Wireless, that allow a hotel to manage its Wi-Fi networks. And even though the petition turned into something of a public relations nightmare, the petitioners and some vendors continue to seek clarity on what network management tools and techniques are allowed.

Aruba's equipment, for example, allows a Wi-Fi network operator to identify what types of devices are on its network, where the devices are accessing the network and the bandwidth they consume. Aruba's platform also uses wireless access points to scan the RF environment for unauthorized devices that are interfering or potentially could interfere with the Wi-Fi operator's network. 

Some network management systems include the capability to mitigate interference and can de-authenticate packets from unauthorized access points to prevent a connection from being completed, something the Marriott was accused of doing.

During the initial comment period, Aruba filed a comments, jointly with Ruckus, asking the FCC to use the proceeding as an opportunity for nuanced balancing of the commission's policies promoting unlicensed spectrum, and Wi-Fi in particular, with the needs of network operators to maintain secure and reliable Wi-Fi networks, according to a company statement.

"We are disappointed that the FCC did not use this opportunity to clarify what rules govern Wi-Fi, and under what circumstances using Wi-Fi containment technology is allowed," the company said in statement to FierceWirelessTech this week.

Ruckus Wireless pretty much reiterated what it already put forth in joint comments to the FCC, telling FierceWirelessTech that the section of the Communications Act (333) that the FCC relied upon applies to stations for licensed spectrum and "care should be exercised before extending licensed spectrum rules to devices in the unlicensed space."

Ruckus also said that "de-auths," which are 802.11 compliant and common security techniques, are not interference as that term is used in the Communications Act, and the FCC should use this as an opportunity to "work with the industry to help companies know what are appropriate security measures that can be employed to protect networks operating in unlicensed spectrum without violating the Act."

On one hand, Wi-Fi vendors benefit by the support for ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi. On the other hand, their business is selling the gear that these hotels and other venues use to manage their networks.

Paul Margie, a partner with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, which represents companies opposed to the hotels' petition, noted that the FCC's Wi-Fi enforcement action is part of an important trend in that the FCC recognizes the growing importance of Wi-Fi, whether it's looking at unlicensed designations as part of the upcoming incentive auction or in the 3.5 GHz or 5 GHz bands.

"There's a convergence where consumers are less concerned and often sometimes less aware of whether they're on a licensed or an unlicensed frequency band," he told FierceWirelessTech. "What they care about is that they've got connectivity and that connectivity is good. I think on one side that's important because as licensed and unlicensed become more dependent on each other, this perceived divide between the two becomes less important."

As to why the FCC is acting on this topic now, Margie said he believes the question wasn't posed before the commission until now. No one came to the FCC and said: Will you give us permission to interfere with Wi-Fi operations? Once someone asked that question, the FCC gave its answer, he said.

It's not clear if the FCC plans to address the rest of the petition. An FCC spokesperson on Friday said the petition is still under consideration.

Besides the commissioners' clear statements about Wi-Fi blocking this week, the consent decree reached in October may provide some more clues on where the FCC is coming form. Back then, Marriott agreed to settle for $600,000 the allegations that it interfered with and disabled Wi-Fi networks at the Nashville resort. In the decree, the FCC said the containment features in the Marriott's network, such as the sending of de-authentication packets to rogue devices, was a violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act.

Related articles:
FCC's Rosenworcel pushes for more spectrum for Wi-Fi, unlicensed use
FCC: Do not block Wi-Fi, and jamming devices are illegal
Marriott pledges to not block personal Wi-Fi devices at its hotels
Google, Cisco, Microsoft, others weigh in on Marriott's Wi-Fi network management petition
Marriott, other venues want FCC to clarify Wi-Fi network-management rules
Marriott to pay $600K fine over Wi-Fi blocking allegations