The FCC Wants To Know Why Journalists Had To Pay $200 For WiFi At Presidential Debate

from the patriotic-price-gouging dept

Journalists and citizens attending this week’s Presidential debate at Hofstra Univserity found themselves facing an unexpected surprise when they were informed that WiFi at the event would cost them $200. Worse, perhaps, was that attendees said that the college was going around using this $2,000 WiFi signal detector to identify those using their smartphone as a mobile hotspot, and encouraging them to instead shell out the big bucks for a few hours of Hofstra WiFi:

The behavior caught the eye of FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who proclaimed on Twitter that there’s “something not right” with what Hofstra was doing, and that it potentially violated FCC rules:

Several times over the last few years, the FCC has fined hotel and conference center companies for willfully blocking users’ hotspots from working, forcing them to shell out exorbinant rates for conference center WiFi. The crackdown began with Marriott in 2014, which initially tried to fight the fine before realizing it was outnumbered by regulators, annoyed consumers, and even companies like Microsoft. The FCC subsequently fined Hilton for similar behavior, as well as for actively obstructing the FCC’s investigation into what Hilton was doing. Several smaller conference center WiFi companies have been fined by the FCC as well.

The difference in this instance is that Hofstra wasn’t actively jamming personal hotspots in the same way conference centers have. And when pressed for comment, Hofstra representatives laid the blame for the $200 price tag at the feet of the Commission on Presidential Debates. They also claim they worked to shoot down people’s personal hotspots out of fear that they might cause interference with the existing network:

“The Commission on Presidential Debates sets the criteria for services and requires that a completely separate network from the University?s network be built to support the media and journalists. This is necessary due to the volume of Wi-Fi activity and the need to avoid interference. The Rate Card fee of $200 for Wi-Fi access is to help defray the costs and the charge for the service does not cover the cost of the buildout.

For Wi-Fi to perform optimally the system must be tuned with each access point and antenna. When other Wi-Fi access points are placed within the environment the result is poorer service for all. To avoid unauthorized access points that could interfere, anyone who has a device that emits RF frequency must register the device. Whenever a RF-emitting device was located, the technician notified the individual to visit the RF desk located in the Hall. The CPD RF engineer would determine if the device could broadcast without interference.”

While interference is certainly real, it’s not particularly likely that a user’s personal tethered hotspot would grind the Hofstra network to a halt if properly designed. Regardless, Rosenworcel says she has urged the FCC Enforcement Bureau to take a closer look at whether debate staffers went too far. Regardless of the outcome, Rosenworcel is probably happy to have her name in print for something other than her failure to support the FCC’s quest for cable box competition, a position fueled largely by inaccurate claims by the US Copyright Office.

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Companies: hofstra university

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Comments on “The FCC Wants To Know Why Journalists Had To Pay $200 For WiFi At Presidential Debate”

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Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Welcome to unlicensed spectrum!

…unless you’re one of 13 federal agencies plus many state and local police agencies using Stingray and other cell site simulators. The latest generation of which can remotely inject malware into cell phones.

A check of the Washington DC area last year found signs of at least 18 of them in use in two days.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Welcome to unlicensed spectrum!

The owners of the venue may be able to escort a journalist off their private property for not using their outrageously overpriced WiFi.

But it’s a real prick move.

The university no doubt gets a genuine benefit for hosting the presidential debates. The dignity of the debates — especially when Trump is one of the master debaters. 🙂

But I can also imagine the university no longer being invited to host the debates. :-O How would they react to that?

And I’ll give the same advice as I said to the Marriott hotel when they did their jamming. If you really want to make a better WiFi network, for legit reasons, then make it FREE TO USE for all. That will ENCOURAGE people to use it rather than interfere with it by using their own equipment.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: And yet it apparently wasn't 'super easy' for you to just ignore the article...

I too like to make myself feel better by complaining that an article that I didn’t have to read but did anyway contained something that I disagreed with, since I was clearly owed an article that I found agreeable.

I also like to save time by combining one complaint with another, entertaining myself by complaining when other people point out absurd, unjust, greedy or flat out stupid things, because my time is worth more than that dammit and it’s the fault of everyone else for highlighting things that I don’t care about.

Some IT guy says:

Why not just plug directly into the hotspot and go from the Cell network to the hotspot and into your laptop? That way you don’t have to deal with either their fee or the Champions of WIFI tying to shut down your hotspot. I realize this doesn’t work if you have multiple users on the hot spot. Where I work it is a very saturated RF environment (especially on the 2.4) but I’m not at wall worried about personal hot spots bringing down the wifi.

Skeeter says:

Just Plain Illegal

Beyond all the spin, might I point out that it is just blatantly FEDERALLY ILLEGAL to jam radio or telecommunication signals?

Hofstra might want to actually read up on this, that without FCC authorization (such as the military has), it is AGAINST THE LAW to jam any public telecommunications. I know this as a direct experience when my wife’s company’s IT department thought it ‘cool’ to install a cell phone jammer to stop the use of personal cell phones in the building. I called the FCC and reported them. With threats of fines up to $20,000 a day, and a pending search warrant for the facility, magically, the jammers disappeared.

Seems the CEO decided that his IT department got a little ‘over zealous’ at something he said about ‘curtailing personal communications’ (when in reality, he directed them to ‘block it’ if at all possible).

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Just Plain Illegal

They didn’t jam or interfere with the signal.

They, physically, walked up to the operator of a hotspot and asked (demanded?) them to turn it off.

Communications Act of 1934 states in part that you may not intentionally interfere with the wireless communication of any user on unlicensed frequencies.

Now whether physical interference — destroying a transmitter/receiver or demanding it be turned off — is considered “intentional interference”, or whether only electronic interference (would an EMP be regarded as physical or electronic? 😉 ) is a breach I do not know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Surprise! They want to intercept everything that every journalist says because they are all forced through a single gateway they control. Making a few extra bucks is great but knowing what everyone is saying even before the show is over is priceless.

The only thing that prevents this is some use of encryption which once again surprise the powers at be want permanently compromised.

DB (profile) says:

I expect that this incident will result in the rapid evolution of the FCC’s regulatory stance.

The FCC has the exclusive regulatory control (“competency” for you EU types) over the use of the airwaves and regulation of transmitting devices in the U.S. That includes the exclusive right to prohibit and limit transmitting devices.

I’m guessing that they will re-write rules to make that clear, and to provide specific areas where they cede their authority (rather than leave ambiguity if they have the authority). Exceptions will include listed areas where all transmitting devices are allowed to be banned for safety reasons: certain areas of hospitals (although it is questionable if that is technically required), on aircraft (again questionable), prisons (although prohibiting contraband should cover that), areas being prepared with explosives, and parts of the federal government exempt from FCC rules (the US DoD cooperates with the FCC, but does not need to follow the rules).

They will specifically state the banning other devices so that your devices work better is usurping their exclusive authority. Banning devices for safety reasons will be a narrowly interpreted, especially if you want to use transmitting devices while banning everyone else.

There is a fresh urgency to clarify the rules, since this case might be opening the floodgates to every contract, ticket and venue purporting to be able to regulate how you can use the public airwaves.

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