FCC Faces Propriety of Management of Wi-Fi Systems to Guard Against Radio Frequency Interference

The FCC has solicited comment on the rights of a Wi-Fi operator to manage its network through the use of FCC-authorized equipment to monitor and mitigate threats to the security and network interference. On November 19th, the Commission issued a Public Notice seeking comment on a joint petition filed by the American Hospitality & Lodging Association (“AHLA”), Marriott International, Inc. and Ryman Hospitality Properties (the Petitioners”) that addresses the rights of Wi-Fi operators to manage and protect their networks (“AHLA Petition”). This issues raised by the AHLA Petition, which was filed in August 2014, potentially impact a broad range of Wi-Fi premise operators, including local businesses, educational institutions, hospitals, hotels, airports and other enterprises that operate Wi-Fi networks on their premises.

Statements opposing or supporting the AHLA Petition are requested by December 19, 2014.

The Public Notice comes roughly six weeks the FCC announced a settlement with Marriott International, Inc., one of the petitioners, resolving an investigation in the hotel operator’s use of a Wi-Fi management system that blocked access of unauthorized hotspots on the hotel premises. (Find our blog post on that settlement here. )

Specifically, the AHLA Petition requested that the FCC declare that a Wi-Fi network operator’s use of FCC-authorized equipment to monitor and mitigate threats to the security and reliability of its network does not violate 47 U.S.C. §333, even when the management system may result in interference to unlicensed Part 15 (radio frequency devices) device being operated by others. Section 333 prohibits willful or malicious interference with or the causing of interference to radio communications of any station licensed or authorized” under the Communications Act or operated by the federal government.

The Petitioners argue that Section 333 only protects licensed operations, not unlicensed devices. They state that interpreting Section 333 to also prohibit interference to Part 15 devices would have absurd results and is inconsistent with the FCC’s Part 15 rules which require unlicensed devices to accept any interference received. The particular focus of the AHLA Petition are devices that can function as mobile hotspots. The AHLA Petition provides the FCC with two options for providing guidance on this issue: 1) issue a declaratory ruling or 2) commence an industry-wide rulemaking proceeding to amend Part 15 to specify what, if any, interference to Part 15 devices that the statute prohibits.

What is at stake, according to the Petitioners is a matter of potential interest to any manner of Wi-Fi operation: in short, may Wi-Fi operators be able to take necessary steps to protect against operation of unlicensed devices, such as mobile hotspots, interfering with secure and reliable Wi-Fi connections. The Commission’s resolution of the petition could have a broad impact since the vast majority of unlicensed Part 15 devices, such as iPads and tablets, can function as separate Wi-Fi access points. Businesses, enterprises, and institutions that operate their own Wi-Fi networks for employees, guests, patrons, students, and others may wish to monitor the FCC’s action in this docket and consider submitting comments or reply comments.