FCC Proceedings Could Impact Current Wi-Fi Network Management Practices

Kelley Drye Client Advisory

Many enterprises and organizations, such as hotels, educational institutions, hospitals, airports, manufacturers, and other businesses, operate Wi-Fi networks on their premises to support their organization’s operations or for the convenience of guests, customers, employees, patrons and/or students.   In recent months, several issues related to the use and management of Wi-Fi networks  have come before the Federal Communications Commission.  Just before Thanksgiving, the FCC 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”).  The issues raised by the AHLA Petition, which was filed in August 2014, potentially impact the broader community of enterprises and organizations that operate Wi-Fi Networks on their premises, especially those that utilize or are considering deploying systems that support network security and minimize interference in a manner that may affect the operation of other unlicensed radiofrequency devices.

The AHLA Petition asks the FCC to 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 constitute unlawful interference even when the system may result in interference to unlicensed (Part 15) devices being operated by others.  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?   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 AHLA Petition provides the FCC with two options for providing guidance on this issue: 1) issue a declaratory ruling that Part 15/unlicensed devices ae not protected by Section 333 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.

The Public Notice comes roughly six weeks the FCC announced a $600,000 settlement with Marriott International, Inc., one of the petitioners, resolving an investigation into the hotel operator’s use of a Wi-Fi management system that the FCC alleged operated to block access of private hotspots on the hotel premises.

In short,  businesses, enterprises and institutions that operate their own Wi-Fi networks may wish to monitor the FCC’s action in this docket and consider submitting comments or reply comments in response to the FCC’s Public Notice, which are due December 19, 2014. 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, that can function as private Wi-Fi access points.

KDW’s Communications Practice Group  has attorneys that can advise organizations on the interpretation and applicability of FCC regulations to unlicensed equipment and Wi-Fi network operations as well as assist organizations examining their compliance obligations or facing FCC investigations or enforcement actions.

Click here to read the full article on the AHLA Petition on KDW’s CommLaw Monitor.

Click here to read the full article on the FCC’s Marriott settlement on KDW’s CommLaw Monitor.