Conference Wi-Fi biz fined $750k for jamming personal hotspots

Signal-throttler Smart City slapped down by Uncle Sam

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has fined a network operator $750,000 for blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots in favor of its own Wi-Fi networks in US convention centers.

The FCC said in its decree [PDF] that Smart City used its Wi-Fi network equipment to transmit deauthentication frames that disabled the personal Wi-Fi hotspots for users attending convention centers in at least five US cities.

By jamming the personal hotspot devices, Smart City was then able to force conference attendees and exhibitors to connect with its own Wi-Fi network, at the hefty cost of $80 for a single day's access. In doing so, the FCC said Smart City tampered with licensed radio broadcasts, a violation of Section 333 of the US Communications Act.

"It is unacceptable for any company to charge consumers exorbitant fees to access the internet while at the same time blocking them from using their own personal Wi-Fi hotspots to access the internet," said FCC enforcement bureau chief Travis LeBlanc.

"All companies who seek to use technologies that block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections are on notice that such practices are patently unlawful."

The FCC said it was tipped off to the jamming by one of the hotspot manufacturers, who said that users were complaining of being unable to operate their devices in the convention centers. Among the locations named by the FCC were convention centers in Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; Phoenix, Arizona; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Orlando, Florida.

Under the terms of the consent decree, Smart City will have to pay out the $750,000 penalty to the government and will also be forced to provide compliance updates every three months to the FCC for the next three years.

"We have always acted in good faith, and we had no prior notice that the FCC considered the use of this standardized, 'available-out-of-the-box' technology to be a violation of its rules. But when we were contacted by the FCC in October 2014, we ceased using the technology in question," Smart City president Mark Haley said in a statement. "While we have strong legal arguments, we've determined that mounting a vigorous defense would ultimately prove too costly and too great a distraction for our leadership team."

This is the second such fine the FCC has levied against a network operator for unlawfully jamming personal hotspot devices. Last year, the FCC handed down a $600,000 fine to a Marriott hotel accused of the same practice. ®

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