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FCC Cracks Down on Users Who Block Wi-Fi Access in Sports Venues

26 Aug, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Latest Fight Includes Telecom Firm Providing Connectivity to Walt Disney World, 30 Major U.S. Convention Centers, Three NFL Stadiums

First Marriott, now the world.

It has been less than a year since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) smacked down the giant hotel chain for its attempt to block wi-fi hotspots at convention centers. And with that event still fresh in the rear-view, it would be natural to assume the sports and hospitality market had learned not to try to force consumers to pay exorbitant prices for connectivity.

But that assumption would be wrong. According to Gizmodo, the FCC remains busy with its campaign to stop companies that block users from using anything but their own services. The agency just slapped a company with a $750,000 fine for blocking wi-fi hotspots at convention centers. Convention centers in Ohio, Indiana, Florida and Arizona were among those named, according to an article in Successful Meetings.

The company at the center of the case is Smart City Holdings. Smart City is the telecommunications arm of the holdings company that provides connectivity to Walt Disney World, three NFL stadiums and 30 major U.S. convention centers.

According to an FCC release, Smart City had been blocking convention attendees' personal mobile hotspots, while making them pay (big) to use Smart City's wi-fi. Normally, Smart City charges exhibitors and visitors $80 per day to use its wi-fi. If its monitoring system detected an attendee attempting to use a mobile hotspot to connect to the Internet, Smart City automatically blocked users’ access.

The FCC was not amused.

“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,” the FCC’s Travis LeBlanc said in a statement. “All companies who seek to use technologies that block FCC-approved wi-fi connections are on notice that such practices are patently unlawful.”

Smart City said in a statement to Fast Company that its wi-fi blockage resulted in "significantly less than one percent of all devices being deauthenticated." (Smart City said it provides wi-fi access to nearly 31 million users per year in public spaces.) The company argued that major convention centers and federal agencies employ the same hotspot-blocking technologies.

Smart City president Mark Haley said in a public statement:

"We are not gatekeepers to the Internet. As recommended by the Department of Commerce and Department of Defense, we have occasionally used technologies made available by major equipment manufacturers to prevent wireless devices from significantly interfering with and disrupting the operations of neighboring exhibitors on our convention floors."

Funny. That sounds an awful like Marriott’s claim that its blocking activities were “protecting guests from identity theft and other threats.”

In the consent decree issued by the FCC, Smart City did not admit liability. Despite the fact that the Marriott case was nationally publicized, Smart City's statement noted the company had no prior notice that its hotspot-blocking practice was unfavorable with the agency.

It is noteworthy that Marriott didn’t admit culpability, either; after locking horns with the FCC for four months, it simply dropped its petition to the FCC to change its rules regarding access and slunk away from the fight.

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