Waiting for the FCC

After the Federal Communications Commission cracks down on blocking mobile hot spots at a hotel, IT officers are waiting to hear if the order applies to colleges and universities.

February 6, 2015

College and university chief information officers are unsure of what to make of the Federal Communications Commission’s hard line on blocking personal wireless hot spots and whether it applies to higher education. Nearly a year after the issue emerged, the agency still has yet to clarify.

The hotel chain Marriott International in October agreed to pay the F.C.C. a $600,000 penalty to settle a March 2013 case brought to the agency by an angry guest. While staying at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, the guest discovered the hotel was monitoring the wireless network and jamming signals produced by mobile hot spots. Such hot spots, also known as “mi-fi” devices, convert cellular data into a Wi-Fi signal that users can then connect laptops, tablets and other devices for internet access -- thereby avoiding having to pay for hotel Wi-Fi.

“Wi-Fi is an essential on-ramp to the Internet,” the F.C.C. said in the order. “The growing use of technologies that unlawfully block consumers from creating their own Wi-Fi networks via their personal hot-spot devices unjustifiably prevents consumers from enjoying services they have paid for and stymies the convenience and innovation associated with Wi-Fi Internet access.”

In an enforcement advisory published last week, the agency struck an even more confrontational tone.

“Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal,” the advisory reads. “The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference.”

The agency based its decision on section 333 of the Communications Act of 1934, which states that “No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications” covered by the law.

In addition to reiterating that the use of jamming equipment is prohibited, the advisory also clarified the type of behavior the F.C.C. is looking to crack down on. “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 reads.

But the agency has yet to clarify if the rules extend beyond those sectors. The enforcement advisory has therefore sparked a renewed debate in C.I.O. discussion groups about what such guidelines might mean for higher education.

In an e-mail, Theresa Rowe, C.I.O. at Oakland University, explained the quandary facing her colleagues at other institutions.

“We are aware of national trends in public and commercial environments promoting open wireless access using personal devices (the B.Y.O.D. model),” Rowe wrote. “At the same time, campuses have to make sure that limited resources are fully available and operational for students, who pay for the resources through tuition. Then we have F.C.C. stepping in with rules that aren't yet clear. It is difficult for I.T. leaders to assess campus directions, as evidenced by much C.I.O. and network manager discussion in groups such as Educause.”

The F.C.C. did not reply to multiple requests for clarification. A spokesman for Educause said the higher education I.T. organization is looking into the matter.

Some college and university C.I.O.s took the references to hotels, convention centers and commercial establishments to mean that the F.C.C. is only looking to regulate wireless connectivity in those spaces. But other C.I.O.s pointed out that many institutions offer conference spaces and operate hotels, and that some campuses even directly charge students for Internet access as opposed to rolling those costs into a technology fee.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that a Marriott spokesman in October said the company would petition the F.C.C. to reassess its policies, comparing the company’s practices to those used by a “wide variety of industries, including hospitals and universities.” The company backed down last week, saying it would no longer fight the agency.

Most colleges don’t bother regulating personal hot spots. Since the devices don’t connect to the campus network, they don’t pose a security threat. Too many separate wireless networks in one place can lead to poor performance because of radio frequency interference, but then again, even household appliances such as microwave ovens may be sources of interference.

Instead, campus I.T. offices often ban attempts to provide unauthorized access to or extend the network, for example by hooking up a wireless router in a dorm room to improve coverage for the students living there. With such policies in mind, other C.I.O.s said they believed their actions do not violate the F.C.C.’s policies.

“I am pretty sure it does not affect us since I don't know [of] any of us that block signals,” John D. Lawson, vice provost for information technology and C.I.O. at Western Washington University, said in an e-mail. “Many of us do remove ‘rogue’ [access points] from our network for security reasons, and that is different than blocking a ‘hot spot.’”


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