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Shameless: Smart City Wi-Fi Blocks Personal Hotpots

The Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau said that telco Smart City has been purposefully blocking consumers’ Wi-Fi connections at various convention centers around the United States. The reason? Likely to force them to buy a Smart City pass of course, which offers Wi-Fi at conventions and meetings for the not-so-low price of $80 per day.

They should be ashamed of themselves-- but they aren't.

A lot of people go to Nashville these days, and not just to immerse themselves in all things country music. People go to Orlando—and not just for the Harry Potter exhibit at Universal Studios. Vegas? Some never see New York, or Paris or Venice while they’re there, even though they’re all just a cab ride away. The point is that aside from tourism, conventions and business meetings account for the vast majority of annual visitors to many of these hubs—and they expect connectivity to do their jobs while they’re there.

That’s why the $750,000 fine that the FCC has slapped the Wi-Fi provider known as Smart City with seems unaccountably low. Connectivity is the lifeblood of commerce these days—and forcing an artificial monopoly that prevents many from being able to do their jobs is breathtakingly irresponsible.

Most people these days can tether their laptop to their mobile phones Wi-Fi, so that a PC or Mac can use the phone’s 3G or 4G data connection. This personal hotspot function has been built into the Apple iPhone for many moons, and I can attest that it’s awfully handy when that “free” airport Wi-Fi grinds to a halt—or when a convention-based Wi-Fi provider wants to charge extortionist rates to get online—and by “extortionist” I’m thinking, oh, I don’t know, maybe $80 a day?

Smart City was effectively jamming people’s signals in order to shut down the mobile hotspot goodness. Which is utterly reprehensible.

“It is unacceptable for any company to charge consumers exorbitant fees to access the Internet while at the same time blocking them from using their own personal Wi-Fi hotspots to access the Internet,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, in a statement. “All companies who seek to use technologies that block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections are on notice that such practices are patently unlawful.”

As part of the settlement, Smart City will cease its Wi-Fi blocking activities and will pay a $750,000 civil penalty. Again, that seems like a slap on the wrist.

Although the FCC is quite clear in what exactly it determined that Smart City was doing, Smart City itself maintains that the blocking was rare and merely an unintended consequence of managing interference:

“We are not gatekeepers to the Internet. As recommended by the Department of Commerce and Department of Defense, we have occasionally used technologies made available by major equipment manufacturers to prevent wireless devices from significantly interfering with and disrupting the operations of neighboring exhibitors on our convention floors. This activity resulted in significantly less than one percent (1%) of all devices being deauthenticated and these same technologies are widely used by major convention centers across the globe as well as many federal agencies.”

This is the FCC’s second action on this front: 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.

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