FCC Rules Blocking Wi-Fi Access Is IllegalImagine you’re at a hotel or convention center for a business conference. You have to download some files from your server back at the office, so you turn on your Wi-Fi hot spot. For some reason, it won’t work and you can’t troubleshoot the problem. So you inquire about accessing the convention center’s Wi-Fi network. Of course you can get access, they say. It’s only $80 per day. That price is obscene, but if you need those files, what would you do? It’s a decision you shouldn’t — and don’t — have to make. No Need to Imagine In August, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Smart City Holdings $750,000 for blocking mobile Wi-Fi hot spots at its convention centers in at least four states so that it could charge guests for use of their network. The company issued a press release that said, in essence, “We didn’t know we couldn’t do that, and besides, everyone else is doing it, too.” Being forced to pay for access is especially frustrating when network performance is poor, as is often the case with hotel Wi-Fi. Your mobile hot spot can probably outperform most hotel networks, and you can buy a mobile hot spot or pay for a month’s worth of access for less than Smart City Holdings was charging for a single day. A Federal Case As annoying as it would be to have your Wi-Fi hot spot blocked, some people might argue that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in such a case: if you don’t like it, book the convention somewhere else. Their convention center, their rules, right? In this case, wrong. The federal government has the power to regulate interstate commerce, and the FCC is specifically tasked with regulating wireless communications across the country. So when any private entity attempts to block FCC-approved wireless communications, they’re in the FCC’s house, and the FCC makes the rules. Fight for Your Right to Wi-Fi The first step in preventing such a problem from happening to you is to know your rights. According to a January press release from the FCC: “No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network.” It might be worth bookmarking that press release on your smartphone or laptop just in case you wind up at a conference center that isn’t as up on the law as it should be. Not an Isolated Incident Smart City Holdings isn’t the first company to violate the prohibition against Wi-Fi blocking — and they most likely won’t be the last. Last year, the FCC fined Marriott Hotel Services, Inc., $600,000 for blocking Wi-Fi access at their Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn. The FCC calls the complaints it has received regarding Wi-Fi blocking “a disturbing trend,” and urges anyone who feels they’ve been the victim of such blocking to report the incident to them at fcc.gov/complaints or call 1-888-CALL-FCC.
Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.