Tag Archives: Mi-Fi

Three Inconvenient Truths and Some Conspiracy Theory About the FCC’s Mi-Fi Enforcements

The recent enforcement actions by the FCC against hotels that disrupted private Mi-Fi usage are interesting for a number of reasons. If you’re a Mi-Fi user that travels and you don’t really understand or care about the inner workings of business wireless networks, you likely did some variation of a fist-pump because evil companies must now seemingly mend their dastardly ways. (This blog may challenge the validity of that assumption, so click out of here now if you don’t want your bubble burst.) If you are a long-time wireless admin of business Wi-Fi networks, you are likely scratching your head a bit over several of the finer points of what the FCC is up to these days in going after companies like Marriott and MC Dean. I would guess that some Wi-Fi admins are feeling a bit uncomfortable but can’t quite put their fingers on why that is, but what the FCC’s doing all of the sudden just feels weird. And for those of you that are trying to keep an open mind about what it all really means as all sides of the debate try to be heard, I give you the following to ponder:

1. “Our Premises, Our Airspace to Keep Healthy” Since Late ’90s

The 802.11 Wi-Fi standard dates back to the late 90s. For over 15 years, wireless network administrators, security managers, and CTO/CEOs have been writing and enforcing policy about signals that compete with their WLAN systems and the use of “rogue” access points not put in by “Central IT”. Many of these policies pre-date Mi-Fi’s existance, but often address off-my-wire ad hoc (peer to peer, my laptop to yours) direct connect rogues that both interfere and bring their own security concerns. This is an entrenched technical cultural issue. Though Mi-Fi doesn’t meet the textbook definition of IBSS ad hoc networking, it does share the properties of being a competing Wi-Fi signal and it’s own security risk in that if you know what you are doing, you can bridge “isolated” networks to each other pretty easily. Rogue ad hoc is just as important to rogue on-wire by most WLAN policies I’ve reviewed- for both RF interference and security concerns.

All of these (and plenty more) are scraped from easily-found published private network policies on the Internet:

If there are cordless phones, ad hoc or peer-to-peer WAP’s in the prohibited frequency, [we} will attempt to notify the user in writing and ask them to remove the device.  If the device is not removed within 24 hours, [we] will take necessary actions to stop the interference of the device.

This policy covers any devices and users to adhere to the rules, regulations and policies concerning security and prevention of interference.

Due to possible interference from other sources within the 802.11 wireless 2.4GHz frequency range, [our] wireless spectrum should be kept clear of unauthorised transmissions.

Interference means the degradation of a wireless communication signal caused by electromagnetic radiation from another source. Interference can slow down or eliminate a wireless transmission depending on the strength of the interfering signal.

Interference or disruption of other authorized communications that result from the intentional or incidental misuse or misapplication of wireless network radio frequency spectrum is prohibited.

In the event that a wireless device interferes with other equipment, [we] shall resolve the interference as determined by use priority.

So, those of us administering wireless networks tend to recognize that solutions enforce policy, and the policies that guide WLAN security and interference management are nothing new. They are so ingrained in the Wi-Fi psyche from the system side that WLAN vendors and companies that train new WLAN staff are all on board with the philosophy that you can do what you need to to keep your own airspace clean and healthy for the greater good of your users, and to enforce YOUR OWN policies. And… this culture has been in place under the FCC’s own nose for all these years. Mi-FI devices are easy to lump into the spirit of long-established Wi-FI policies, with no malicious intent in doing so.

2. Non-Accommodation Equals Disruption, Too- To Users.

In convention centers where big events are going on, the Wi-Fi network will be made up of dozens (if not hundreds) of extremely low-powered WLAN cells. These cells only have limited channels to use, so staggering channels meticulously and controlling cell size is pivotal to network operation (and event success, in many cases). Along comes a Mi-Fi, with it’s often bad-neighbor config that blasts out a strength that may be an order of magnitude stronger than the conference Wi-Fi cells. As the Mi-Fi disrupts multiple cells (that other conference goers are trying to use), those same cells are also interfering with the Mi-Fi device. In these scenarios, there are typically no “free channels” so mutual interference is a fact of life.

So… I go to use my Mi-Fi at a convention center during an event, and lo and behold, it doesn’t work well. All I know from the headlines is that the FCC says it’s OK for me to do what I’m trying to do, so if it’s not working well, the stinking hotel must be trying to block me! I better report them to the FCC! It’s an outrage!  Except it’s not- it’s physics at work. So what comes next- convention centers needing to ask Mi-Fi users permission to use specific channels?

3.  The FCC Is Closing Many Field Offices, Which May Impact It’s Ability to Enforce. 

The agency is calling it an efficiency move, but what impact the cuts will have on the agency’s ability to enforce it’s own rules remains to be seen.

Let’s Play the “What If” Game A Bit

I, and others have voiced a fair amount of concern about not only what the FCC is doing with it’s new tactic of huge fines, but why it’s being done with very little substantive guidance. Even two of the five commissioners at the FCC don’t seem to agree, or to get what the agency is supposed to be accomplishing with their new fundraising campaign. With lack of leadership from the FCC, the WLAN community is left to speculate about what they could be thinking in DC. Here are a couple of theories to ponder:

  • What if the FCC really is clueless about how important Wi-FI has become to businesses of all types? What if, while we as IT organizations have been doing our best to write and enforce good WLAN policy, and have bought WLAN tools that help us to enforce those policies for the greatest number of people on our premises that rely on Wi-Fi, the FCC in it’s ivory tower was oblivious to it all for the last 15 years? What if an out-of-touch FCC is thinking one thing, while the rest of the WLAN community is basically thinking something else?  It might explain the rush to crank out big fines for what amounts to the same policy that private WLAN environments have been enforcing for the last 15 years. Because the hotels were charging big fees, they have cast the whole thing in a stinky light (and deserve to be called out on it), but the issues for the rest of us are made murky because of the FCC’s Mi-Fi related hits on the hotels and convention centers. It would seem that we all need help (that the FCC has no interest in providing) in:
    • Re-writing our business policies to accommodate Mi-Fi while still preserving our own business continuity
    • Understanding whether the hotels were only in trouble because they were trying to charge (what everyone seems to agree was too much) for their own Wi-Fi (it sure reads that way at times)
    • Or coming to grips with- if it’s what the FCC is saying- Mi-Fi must be accommodated everywhere under all circumstances regardless of collateral damage from it’s interference
  • What if the FCC is just using these headline-grabbing fat fines to sew paranoia as a way to augment their enforcement capabilities as they reduce field offices and employee head-count? Uncertainty and paranoia can certainly be force-multipliers when you have the ability to name your price when handing out fines, and the bigger the fine the harder the impact of the tactic. The new-found interest in taking issue with practices that many companies have had written into their IT policies since Wireless Day 1 times out nicely with the cutting back of FCC field offices. It’s just a thought…

My personal sympathies are absolutely with those users who didn’t want to pay what the convention centers were asking for Wi-Fi. But there is so much more to the whole picture than that, and it needs to be talked about.

My related articles on this:

Look Past Marriott To The Bigger Wi-Fi Issue

I fear that many of my professional WLAN colleagues and industry watchers are wearing blinders when it comes to the Marriott issue. Of course I’m talking about the FCC finding fault with the hotel chain for employing wireless containment measures against customers who would rather use their own Mi-Fi devices than pay for the hotel’s wireless network service, and Marriott’s subsequent request for the FCC’s blessings to continue the activity (which is being studied now). On the surface, it’s hard to be sympathetic to any hotel that charges for Wi-Fi, but this is far from a simple issue, and I’m here to tell you that the time is right for regulatory, technical, and behavioral change. Read on, and I have little doubt that this will likely ruffle at least a few feathers.

The point of this article goes beyond the Marriott buzz, but let’s look at that a just little closer first.

“No hotel should be CHARGING for Wi-Fi anymore! It’s such a ubiquitous expectation, Wi-Fi should be as free as elevator service!” Oh really? According to who- people that do wireless and travel a lot? Why is it OK for airlines to charge for Wi-Fi, but not hotels? When I stay at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, I am PISSED that they charge $4 for a cup of instant coffee and $7 for a package of a few busted up cookies the size of rabbit turds in my room. But they get away with it, and I’m welcome to stay elsewhere if it bothers me that much. The same can be said with the hotel situation- some give Wi-Fi away, and others charge. And yes, often the for-fee WLAN service really sucks. But no one says you MUST stay in these places. There are two sentiments I want you take away here: first, every business has the right to charge whatever they want for any service, and we can take our business elsewhere if we don’t like it. Secondly- I actually agree that it’s bad business for hotels to charge for Wi-Fi, and agree that people just “expect it” by now when it comes to Wi-Fi everywhere. That notion of “just expecting” a service becomes even more important here in a bit, so please keep it handy.

Why did the Marriott do what they did? Why do other business do the same thing?

In the case of Marriott, it seems like they are working different angles- they blocked customer Wi-Fi to herd people over to their expensive in-house service. They did it for the clients’ own good, because it’s pretty easy for anyone to pop up a Pineapple and trick users into falling for bad Wi-Fi juju. But Marriott also blocked clients’ Mi-Fi devices because their WLAN vendor built the capability into the WLAN management tool and the WLAN industry has created a state of mind where using these tools for exactly what Marriott did is acceptable. Except it turns out that it’s not acceptable. Go figure.

“Wi-Fi works in unlicensed spectrum. Everyone can interfere and use their own stuff anywhere they like and your Wi-Fi can just deal with that because the FCC regs say so and if you don’t like that then it’s just tough tittie for you.”

Uh, okay. Sure, Wi-Fi works in unlicensed spectrum. That’s what makes it so inexpensive to buy and deploy- which is great. It’s also what makes issues like Marriott so contentious. And here’s where I implore you to stop focusing on Marriott and look at the bigger WLAN picture. Hospitals are the easy one, because nothing makes a point like a loved one dying. Under current FCC regs and the “Marriott Mentality”, I can bring my Mi-Fi into the hospital and pop it to life regardless of the impact on wireless medical equipment. So can any other visitor with a Mi-Fi; they’re all covered by the same FCC regs. Forget “hospital policy”- Marriott got boned for their own policy, and we’re all covered by the same FCC regs.

More environments are ditching legacy phones and going to the likes of Microsoft Lync with heavy emphasis on WLAN use. In my own environment, I have Wi-Fi door locks, lab monitoring equipment, cameras, event and retail barcode scanners, and a number of other critical or quazi-critical utility devices running on a multi-million dollar WLAN. Those of us USING wireless everyday for both huge client access numbers and an increasingly IOT-feeling compliment of utilities have to look at Marriott and scratch our heads. Are we really that powerless to protect our WLAN investments? I get that others not in the same demographic can easily and smugly say “well, then you shouldn’t be using wireless for all this stuff.” To them I say…yeah,  and you should pull your heads out of wherever they might be inserted and to get with the times. The same FCC that is studying the Marriott thing has had a hand in the explosive growth in business WLAN, where many of us EXPECT (remember, I asked you keep that thought handy) to be able to preserve the performance of our own carefully designed Wi-Fi environments within our own borders.

Why invest in training, surveys, good design, and the best components if at any given time in any of our cells anyone can locally DOS our networks with “legal” hardware?

If you haven’t noticed, we’re collectively at a stupid, unsustainable place.

I’ve gotten that call from the stadium in the middle of the game when several Mi-Fi devices were laying waste to the robust Wi-Fi we have for the press. I’ve seen my own network interfere with Mi-Fi devices used by the Red Cross during blood drives to the point where they needed to use another technology. It happens, especially in dense WLAN environments, and the Mi-Fi makers own a lot of the problem. These devices are heavily marketed by Verizon and AT&T, they fire up out of the box on idiotic channels. People who use Mi-Fi fall in love with the devices, and Mi-Fi becomes their de facto way of connecting their laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.  For many, it matters not whether there is decent, free wireless designed to meet their needs in a given location- their Mi-Fi is easy, comfortable, and something they own. And there is no technical etiquette training provided with their purchase. 

I’ve heard the claims of “c’mon, Wi-Fi should be resilient enough to tolerate  the occasional Mi-Fi device.”  Perhaps, and it all depends on the environment and the number of these popular devices that show up.

So what’s next? How does this whole mess get reconciled?

Here’s part of the answer, from my friend Jake Snyder:

Jake

Right on, Jake. Here’s the whole fix, according to me:

  • Somehow, Mi-Fi needs to be rethought to be friendlier to business WLAN- Let’s start with Novatel explaining why everything has to be on channel 2 or 4 or 9
  • The FCC has to take a nuanced, business friendly approach to protecting prod WLAN environments, or to let environments protect themselves
  • If the FCC says that the tools Marriott used are not legal, then these tools need to be gutted out of WLAN management frameworks and not marketed as features
  • Yes, hotels and other venues need to provide good FREE Wi-Fi, and the WLAN industry needs to come up with a way to provide SECURE guest Wi-Fi (Hotspot 2.0 ain’t going anywhere, sorry)
  • It’s probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but Mi-Fi users should get some sort of education at time of purchase about the impact their devices potentially have on WLANs that they operate in the middle of

Marriott is just the tip of the iceberg. If we (all parties) don’t face the underlying factors that have brought us to the point where the FCC is reviewing the current status quo, nothing will get “fixed”.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you- not just your opinion, but what your role in Wi-Fi is.

Mi-Fi Not Kind to Wi-Fi

Are you “that guy”? Do you take your Mi-Fi hotspot with you everywhere you go and light it up as if it were your constitutional right, regardless of your location? Do you treat your hotspot like an extension of your very being?

If so, I say to you…. “Grrrrrr.”

We live in an exciting New Age of Connectivity. The Internet- nay, entire worlds– are at our command from the palms of our hands. We are sailing the Good Ship Mobility on The BYOD Sea, and we have friendly wind. For those who need connectivity for work or play, life is good.

But isn’t everything in IT a study in paradox? Is there ever a free lunch?

BYOD and the consumerization of IT is not without collateral damage. One of the most irritating aspects of affordable, high-bandwidth portable devices is the wonderful, maddening Mi-Fi Hotspot. To rip off Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love:

It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
User meets Mi-Fi and they fall in love
But the spectrum’s haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above

The problem is that Mi-Fi devices are an addiction. Where we have no easy access to our own or decent public Wi-Fi, they are great. But users can’t keep ’em put away when they visit places where the Mi-Fi is not welcome. Worse, they leave them on (especially when your smartphone is the hotspot) and never disable them. And yes- they are rogue access points that violate most corporate wireless and network policies.

One popular Mi-Fi Hotpsot is the Novatel 2200. With a stated range of 30 feet, this little darling has the potential to be felt in multiple cells in a dense WLAN environment. As an added bonus, I frequently see Hotspot devices come up on channel 2 in the 2.4 GHz spectrum- which means your own channel 1 is toast, and your channel 6 is degraded if the environment is open enough to allow the Hotspot to share physical space with the business wireless network (you know, the same that is already fighting off the effects of microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, poorly-chosen cordless phones, wireless cameras,and a range of other devices).

Here’s a great review on another Hotspot, where the author found the range and wall-penetrating abilities of the Novatel 4510L to be surprisingly beefy. Again, great when you have no other network nearby, bad news for your wireless neighbors when you fire it up in the conference room of the company that you’re visiting rather than use their guest wireless service.

After watching the impact of these devices when a couple dozen of them pop up in a stadium packed with fans trying to use my state-of-the-art wireless system, I understand why the London Olympics tried (and why other venues continue to try) to police the use of personal Hotspots. Where a significant investment has been made to provide a carefully engineered WLAN for thousands of fans, a few personal hotspots can ruin wireless life for hundreds of fans and for venue operations that require wireless.

These popular devices certainly aren’t going away, but it would be wonderful if there were some etiquette training provided with their purchase.

And for Corn’s sake, why channel 2?

Again, grrrrr.