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FCC Levies $700k Fine for Convention Center Wi-Fi Blocking

Two commissioners dissent on reading of current commission rules, however

The Federal Communications Commission is prepping to hand down a $718,000 fine against M.C. Dean, the provider of Wi-Fi access at the Baltimore Convention Center, for blocking consumers’ Wi-Fi connections at the center.

An FCC Enforcement Bureau investigation found that M.C. Dean blocked personal mobile hotspots of convention visitors and exhibitors who tried to use their own data plans to connect to the Internet.

“It is patently unlawful for any company to maliciously block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. “Consumers are tired of being taken advantage of by hotels and convention centers that block their personal Wi-Fi connections. This disturbing practice must come to an end.”

Last year, the commission received a complaint from a company that provides equipment that enables users to establish hotspots at conventions and trade shows that alleged that M.C. Dean blocked hotspots its customers had tried to establish at the convention center. After receiving the complaint, Enforcement Bureau field agents visited the venue on multiple occasions and confirmed that Wi-Fi blocking activity was taking place.

M.C. Dean charges exhibitors and visitors as much as $1,095 per event for Wi-Fi access at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The Enforcement Bureau’s investigation found that M.C. Dean engaged in Wi-Fi blocking at the Baltimore Convention Center on dozens of occasions in the last year. During the investigation, M.C. Dean revealed that it used the “Auto Block Mode” on its Wi-Fi system to block consumer-created Wi-Fi hotspots at the venue. M.C. Dean’s Wi-Fi blocking activity also appears to have blocked Wi-Fi hotspots located outside of the venue, including passing vehicles.

As a result, on Nov. 2 the Commission charged the company with violating Section 333 of the Communications Act by maliciously interfering with or causing interference to lawful Wi-Fi hotspots.

The decision does not have the full support of all commissioners, however. Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai dissented on the decision, with Pai saying that the current commission rules do not clearly state that blocking Wi-Fi blocking is currently unlawful.

“There is widespread agreement that we should take action to limit Wi-Fi blocking,” Pai said. “The disagreement is over how we should go about doing that. I believe that we should adopt rules that clearly set forth when Wi-Fi blocking is unlawful and when, if ever, it is lawful.”

Added O’Rielly: “I respectfully requested that the commission undertake a rulemaking or other proceeding to consider this issue more thoroughly, instead of pursuing an enforcement action,” he said, saying that he does not agree with the “expansive reading” of the statute contained in this item. “That brings us to another suspect enforcement item without the underlying work being done.”

The move is the FCC’s third major enforcement action regarding Wi-Fi blocking. In October 2014, the FCC fined Marriott International and Marriott Hotel Services $600,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking activities at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn. In August 2015, the FCC fine Smart City Holdings $750,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking at multiple convention centers across the country.