An Open Letter to the FCC

Dear Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners,

In response to the recent Commission actions relating to Smart City  and Marriott blocking of Wi-Fi hotspots, as a WLAN professional I implore you to recognize that these actions are creating significant amounts of confusion for enterprise Wi-Fi environments and those of us who keep them operational for the millions of business clients that use them every day.

The running theme of late very much seems to be “you can’t use Wi-Fi mitigation techniques to deny individuals the use of their paid-for cellular-equipped personal hotspots” (my own words). But from here, the questions start.

DA 15-113 Enforcement Advisory states clearly “Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal.” That seems pretty cut and dry, until later in the document we read “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. Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.”

Given that most of us doing Wi-Fi are not lawyers and very much want to stay within legal boundaries, these questions hang over the WLAN space:

  1. What constitutes an “other commercial establishment”? Would these be hospitals? Universities? Does it even really matter? If not, why call out just hotels and conference centers?
  2. There is emphasis on Wi-Fi blocking being frowned upon especially when it is used to try to force those using hotspots onto an expensive WLAN service. What if blocking ISN’T used to try to push hotspot users onto a pay Wi-Fi service, but to try to eliminate a hotspot that’s significantly interfering with an organization’s private Wi-Fi and business operations- especially if a free Wi-Fi option is available to the hotspot users?
  3. Are hotspot users free to bring their devices anywhere and everywhere regardless of the interference caused by those hotspots?
  4. In  DA 15-113, and other FCC documents (including those related to Mariott), blocking of Wi-Fi is increasingly implied to equal “jamming”. Does blocking Wi-Fi with either wide band noise in the traditional sense OR network frame manipulation in fact now constitute jamming?
  5. Pretty much all major WLAN vendors sell network management systems that include the very mitigation tools that were used by Marriott and Smart City to block hotspots. Are these tools legal under any circumstances? (If frame manipulation now equals jamming, it would seem not.) If they do have an envisioned legal use, in what situations can they be used without an administrator needing to worry about running afoul of the law? This is perhaps the absolute murkiest aspect of the entire Marriott/Smart City situation to those of us who bought these tools on good faith from our WLAN vendors. If blocking of Wi-Fi is illegal in every situation, why are these tools allowed on the market?

Without clear guidance, there is broad room for misinterpretation of what the FCC both is and is not saying on this general matter. PLEASE consider revisiting DA 15-113 and providing greater clarity on the above questions, for the benefit of all concerned.

Kind regards,

Lee Badman

14 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the FCC

  1. Keith Parsons

    What constitutes an “other commercial establishment”? Does it even really matter?

    I don’t see this mattering at all!

    eliminate a hotspot that’s significantly interfering with an organization’s private Wi-Fi
    & business operations- especially if a free Wi-Fi option is available to hotspot users?

    I don’t see this mattering at all as well… Don’t BLOCK MIFI devices… I don’t see any difference between what Marriott and Smart City have done. They blocked other legitimate users of unlicensed frequencies. Asking the FCC to differentiate between types of blocking of MiFi’s and the reasons for it, not going to happen. Just DON’T BLOCK MIFI’s… is it really that hard to understand?

    Are hotspot users free to bring their devices anywhere and everywhere regardless
    of the interference caused by those hotspots?

    It is NOT interference if the MiFi hotspots are FCC Approved devices staying within the FCC’s rules and guidelines for Tx power. It is NOT interference just because you don’t like it. They have every right to use the unlicensed frequencies.

    Does blocking Wi-Fi with either wide band noise in the traditional sense OR
    network frame manipulation in fact now constitute jamming?

    Wide-Band Noise IS jamming, but you bring up a good point with respect to frame manipulation is something that the FCC has made more confusing. Calling Deauth packets as ‘jamming’ is incorrect and needs to be better defined.

    If blocking of Wi-Fi is illegal in every situation, why are these tools allowed
    on the market?

    The FCC has NOT said anything about all/any use of frames to control who gets on what network as defacto ‘jamming’. They have also been specific about both Marriott and SmartCity as NOT having a security component.

    My take on the FCC’s rulings – and I’d love if they were more forthcoming and posted details. But here goes…

    You may block (using Deauth Packets) – to keep “My-Clients” from joining a “Not-My-AP”

    You may block “Not-My-AP’s” from using and sharing your wired network infrastructure (rogue AP’s)

    You may NOT block a “Not-My Client” from joining and accessing the Internet via a “Not-My-AP”

    These are fairly simple, obvious, and could be easily interpreted by WLAN Professionals. They also constitute controlling your OWN network devices and infrastructure.

    The FCC has chosen in a very public way to ONLY punish those who were using their WLAN infrastructure to:
    1 – Control network devices they had no ownership over.
    2 – Make a profit from selling access to unlicensed frequencies by blocking other legitimate users of the same.
    3 – Assume because a venue owned the physical environment they had rights to control unlicensed frequencies.

    The main thrust I see coming from WLAN folks is wanting to control unlicensed frequencies in order to keep so-called “interference” from harming their carefully tuned Wireless LANs by being outside their control. This is NOT the purpose of unlicensed frequencies. If someone, either a school or hospital or convention center wants to have that level of control the FCC has lots of licensed frequencies available with interference protection. By choosing an unlicensed frequency solution like Wi-Fi, the venue is CHOOSING to work within the unlicensed frequency rules and codes.

    Sure – it would be great if the FCC published more specific answers to your questions – but they have spoken quite succinctly about what NOT to block. Asking to block for other specific reasons that are totally contrary and against unlicensed frequencies will not do our industry any good. Follow the spirit of the law – don’t block “Non-My devices” from joining “Non-My-AP’s” – because we might not like where the FCC comes back if you force them into defining all possible situations.

    Reply
    1. Richard Bennett

      Keith, your analysis is one-sided. Marriot has the same right to use the unlicensed spectrum as they see fit as any other users does. If they want to use some of the spectrum for countermeasures against rogue APs, more power to them. Wi-Fi isn’t happy with hundreds of mobile hotspots beaconing at 1 – 2 Mbps and degrading the Wi-Fi experience for others.

      Reply
  2. wirednot Post author

    Hi Keith- thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment with many well thought out points. Though I can’t agree with a lot of it, I do unequivocally value your opinion. Some thoughts:

    YOU
    What constitutes an “other commercial establishment”? Does it even really matter?

    I don’t see this mattering at all!

    ME
    I don’t necessarily SEE it mattering, other than the FCC saw fit to call it out that way. Why not just say “no blocking hotspots, period?” Which goes back to my point- as it written, you’re left feeling like “OK, they are naming some types of businesses specifically but not others, so maybe there are exceptions.” If it was a high school writing assignment, they’d have gotten a D.

    YOU
    eliminate a hotspot that’s significantly interfering with an organization’s private Wi-Fi
    & business operations- especially if a free Wi-Fi option is available to hotspot users?

    I don’t see this mattering at all as well… Don’t BLOCK MIFI devices… I don’t see any difference between what Marriott and Smart City have done. They blocked other legitimate users of unlicensed frequencies. Asking the FCC to differentiate between types of blocking of MiFi’s and the reasons for it, not going to happen. Just DON’T BLOCK MIFI’s… is it really that hard to understand?

    ME
    Obviously IT IS that hard to understand. We’re both educated men with long technical careers, yet you see it crystal clear and I see it foggy (as do a lot of people from all of the feedback I get and see in various places). The FCC didn’t write “Don’t BLOCK MIFI devices” and just leave it at that. THEY attached particulars and situational descriptors that cloud the point that you say is abundantly clear.

    YOU
    Are hotspot users free to bring their devices anywhere and everywhere regardless
    of the interference caused by those hotspots?

    It is NOT interference if the MiFi hotspots are FCC Approved devices staying within the FCC’s rules and guidelines for Tx power. It is NOT interference just because you don’t like it. They have every right to use the unlicensed frequencies.

    ME
    I agree to a point, but the use of WI-Fi has SOCIETALLY evolved to the point where I can picture a lawyer arguing that the FCC is complicit in helping evolve to be a business-critical resource that the Commission ought to be protecting. And- you can be “legal” and still be a nuisance worthy of removal: case in point http://www.rfdog.com/nutjob.htm (this was me working, ultimately, with the FCC to remove a “legal” user).

    YOU
    Does blocking Wi-Fi with either wide band noise in the traditional sense OR
    network frame manipulation in fact now constitute jamming?
    Wide-Band Noise IS jamming, but you bring up a good point with respect to frame manipulation is something that the FCC has made more confusing. Calling Deauth packets as ‘jamming’ is incorrect and needs to be better defined.

    ME
    I’m actually OK with them expanding the definition of “jamming” to include deauth packets. Just do it formally or don’t, but don’t put links to jamming pages on Wi-Fi blocking rulings and act like they are not being treated the same way.

    YOU
    If blocking of Wi-Fi is illegal in every situation, why are these tools allowed
    on the market?

    The FCC has NOT said anything about all/any use of frames to control who gets on what network as defacto ‘jamming’.

    ME
    I believe the agency is strongly implying it with their wording and referencing their own jamming documents

    YOU
    They have also been specific about both Marriott and SmartCity as NOT having a security component.

    My take on the FCC’s rulings – and I’d love if they were more forthcoming and posted details. But here goes…

    You may block (using Deauth Packets) – to keep “My-Clients” from joining a “Not-My-AP”

    You may block “Not-My-AP’s” from using and sharing your wired network infrastructure (rogue AP’s)

    You may NOT block a “Not-My Client” from joining and accessing the Internet via a “Not-My-AP”

    These are fairly simple, obvious, and could be easily interpreted by WLAN Professionals. They also constitute controlling your OWN network devices and infrastructure.

    ME
    I disagree with the simplicity and obviousness in the real world, where you have thousands of switch ports and a range of device behaviors/constructs. There’s often nothing simple about differentiating whether someone is plugged in to your network or not, yet the detrimental impact of their overpowered signal on your microcells is the same.

    If it WAS this simple, then why can’t the FCC write or commission these kinds of simple bullets as a public service?

    YOU
    The FCC has chosen in a very public way to ONLY punish those who were using their WLAN infrastructure to:
    1 – Control network devices they had no ownership over.
    2 – Make a profit from selling access to unlicensed frequencies by blocking other legitimate users of the same.
    3 – Assume because a venue owned the physical environment they had rights to control unlicensed frequencies.

    ME
    I agree with point 2, but also tell you with clear heart and mind that admins would love relief and rules rewrite on #3- again Wi-Fi has been PUSHED by IEEE, FCC, and others to be something of a business-critical service, and the rules may be outdated versus reality

    YOU
    The main thrust I see coming from WLAN folks is wanting to control unlicensed frequencies in order to keep so-called “interference” from harming their carefully tuned Wireless LANs by being outside their control. This is NOT the purpose of unlicensed frequencies. If someone, either a school or hospital or convention center wants to have that level of control the FCC has lots of licensed frequencies available with interference protection. By choosing an unlicensed frequency solution like Wi-Fi, the venue is CHOOSING to work within the unlicensed frequency rules and codes.

    ME
    I agree- but also find it bizarre that the entire WLAN industry from vendors to CWNP training materials tout “Keep the competing signals out to preserve high performance!” And put ZERO emphasis on “Except you really can’t do that…”

    YOU
    Sure – it would be great if the FCC published more specific answers to your questions – but they have spoken quite succinctly about what NOT to block. Asking to block for other specific reasons that are totally contrary and against unlicensed frequencies will not do our industry any good. Follow the spirit of the law – don’t block “Non-My devices” from joining “Non-My-AP’s” – because we might not like where the FCC comes back if you force them into defining all possible situations.

    ME
    To continue down this vague, loose, assumption filled road based on what FCC is and is not saying on something that OUGHT to be clear is to see a long, miserable line of targeted court cases where only lawyers win.You keep saying it’s simple- I’m saying we are owed a simple document on the whole mess, and we haven’t gotten that yet.

    Your friend,

    Lee

    Reply
  3. John

    Well put sir. Let’s hope the FCC consults with people as knowledgable and as reasonable as yourself Lee….otherwise I fear they’ll call in one or two people with perhaps their own personal views of such things and perhaps aren’t the most knowledgable.

    Reply
  4. Keith Parsons

    Thanks Lee for taking the time to respond to my comments.

    You definitely have a point… the FCC needs to be much more precise in their documentation.

    But I don’t see a possible solution for saying you can break Unlicensed Spectrum rules just because Wi-Fi is a popular and cheap solution.

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going – I hope the FCC takes this input and moves toward a better solution.

    Your friend,

    Keith

    Reply
  5. placebonetix

    1. No it doesn’t matter. The FCC called out hotels and conference centers because those were the venues at issue.

    2. The reason for the blocking doesn’t matter; and offering a ‘free’ hotspot option can’t excuse blocking.

    3. Wi-Fi devices, including access points of networks in commercial and institutional settings, are required to accept interference from radio services and from other similarly authorized devices (Part 15). Because these devices share spectrum allocated to radio services, but are not, of themselves, stations operating in radio services, they are not entitled to the interference protections afforded to radio services.

    Radio services have spectrum allocations. Unlicensed devices don’t, they share spectrum on a non-interference basis. The 2.4 GHz band, for example, is not allocated to Wi-Fi despite what uninformed people may claim.

    While users of these devices are typically notified they must accept interference, including interference that may, as the warnings read, “result in undesired operation”, that would not include being victims of intentional harmful interference with no recourse.

    4. Harmful interference by jamming is not limited to overwhelming a receiver by RF noise. It can include deauth packets used as an “emission, radiation or induction” that stops the target device from operating. That would “endanger the functioning of or seriously degrade, obstruct, or repeatedly interrupt” that system and can’t be permitted under any construction of the rules.

    5. If use of “mitigation tools” would constitute harmful interference, such use would likely violate the Communications Act and the Commission’s Rules. The whole point of these enforcement actions is to ensure that the camel’s nose doesn’t get in the tent. Absolutely nothing has changed in either the definition of harmful interference or the status of Part 15 unlicensed devices in the pecking order. Commercial and institutional WLAN operators don’t get a free pass to block other people’s Wi-Fi even if their management tools offer such a feature. If they don’t want someone using it on their premises they will have to find that operator and show them the door, under their rights to control their private property.

    The makers of those tools claim that they can easily pinpoint the purported offenders, so locating them should be no problem. But they cannot jam users’ devices, any more than theatre operators can jam cell phones because they don’t want people gabbing during the show.

    I respectfully disagree that there is anything other than manufactured “confusion” on this point. If a network is business-critical, and can’t be exposed to possible interference from unlicensed devices, it has no business relying on unlicensed devices itself. Possible alternatives would include the Citizens Broadband Radio Service — which is legally and technically a licensed service, and will compete with Wi-Fi in some contexts.

    Reply
  6. placebonetix

    FCC has always been clear that unlicensed involves risks. It is very difficult to turn the massive ship that is Wi-Fi, with radios built into millions of user devices. But if the risks become too great, that is a business opportunity to develop better technology or perhaps to persuade the FCC to create additional outlets for wireless LAN. That is what happened with 5 GHz, with UPCS, and is happening now with CBRS. Maybe with millimeter waves too and with future, more capable versions of 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi.

    At a minimum, as Wirednot has pointed out (if I read you correctly), the FCC must deal with the fact that it is approving for market AP management products that can exert a measure of control over unaffiliated devices. If network A won’t authenticate non-customer device B, that is not a problem for FCC. Where the tool has a feature that will prevent B communicating with C by over-the-air means, in my view that feature should not be allowed.

    A former FCC chief engineer once said, “Architecture is policy.” If FCC permits that architecture, it would appear that using it is OK policy. Customers who do not normally deal with FCC and not knowledgeable about its arcane rules are exposed to liability for using the product they bought. That is dumb and needs to be addressed, perhaps by not letting that equipment into the marketplace to begin with.

    It won’t help LAN installers and administrators dealing with situations today. Only clear communication about what is and isn’t acceptable conduct will help.

    WLAN manufacturers tried and failed to get the FCC to change its policies. I read their submissions in detail and was astonished at how contrary they were to established law. I think their lawyers did the best they could but knew in their hearts that what they were arguing for their clients was horsefeathers.

    Now — a different administration in the White House will appoint a different FCC chairman, and the climate could change. I hope not. Attempts to loosen the interference rules — to make it permissible for “me” to interfere with the “other guy” — never succeeded. Lobbying could change that and we would be worse off for it.

    Reply
    1. wirednot Post author

      Again, thanks for the excellent comments and for taking the time. Your message is clear, and reasonable and I’m guessing you’ve been around a bit in the wireless world. Much appreciated!

      Reply
    1. wirednot Post author

      I’d not seen that- it’s simply terrible and let’s hope the FCC gets its priorities straight and finds some actual problems to solve rather than squashing innovation here.

      Reply
  7. Pingback: Three Inconvenient Truths and Some Conspiracy Theory About the FCC’s Mi-Fi Enforcements | wirednot

  8. Pingback: A New Day Has Dawned at the FCC- Here’s Hoping for Long Overdue Sanity on quot;WiFi Jammingquot; Fines (IT Toolbox Blogs) – sec.uno

Tell me what YOU think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s