The FCC has been taking a much-needed stand against companies that block personal Wi-Fi hotspots in an effort to get people to buy overpriced access to (normally crap) Wi-Fi networks. The latest pair of cartoon corporate villains: Hilton Hotels, and M.C. Dean, provider to Wi-Fi to the Baltimore Convention Center.
In the first of two separate cases, the FCC slapped M.C. Dean with a $718,000 fine for interfering with Wi-Fi hotspots at Baltimore Convention Center. Its investigation found that the company had enabled an ‘Auto Block Mode’ on its Wi-Fi system, which subtly jammed all other Wi-Fi routers in the building.
Details are scarce, but most selective Wi-Fi jamming like that works by intercepting the authentication ‘handshake’ that your device performs when connecting to a network. If your iPhone is trying to connect to your MiFi, it will send an unencrypted authentication packet to initially try and log on. M.C. Dean’s system will intercept that packet, and send a deauthentication packet back—so all the user will see is an endless loop of ‘trying to connect’.
If you’re thinking that that sounds sketchy and illegal, that’s because it is: the FCC’s Section 333 prohibits exactly that sort of interference: last year, the FCC used that same statue to fine Marriott $600,000 for doing the same thing. Hopefully this will help drive the message home.
In a separate case, the FCC has fined Hilton for failing to cooperate with its investigations into hotel Wi-Fi blocking:
“In November 2014, the Bureau issued Hilton a letter of inquiry seeking information concerning basic company information, relevant corporate policies, and specifics regarding Wi-Fi management practices at Hilton-brand properties in the United States. After nearly one year, Hilton has failed to provide the requested information for the vast majority of its properties.”
While this means that Hilton isn’t yet guilty of anything but being bad at bureaucracy, it’s certainly not a good mark for the hotel chain.