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FCC strikes again on Wi-Fi blocking: Hilton, big electrical contractor fined

FCC strikes again on Wi-Fi blocking: Hilton, big electrical contractor fined

The FCC isn’t kidding around in going after Wi-Fi blockers: Now it has slapped big electrical contracting company M.C. Dean with a $718,000 fine for blocking consumers’ Wi-Fi connections and has proposed a $25,000 fine for Hilton Worldwide for “apparent obstruction of an investigation” into whether Hilton blocked consumers’ Wi-Fi devices.

The FCC isn’t kidding around in going after Wi-Fi blockers: Now it has slapped big electrical contracting company M.C. Dean with a $718,000 fine for blocking consumers’ Wi-Fi connections and has proposed a $25,000 fine for Hilton Worldwide for “apparent obstruction of an investigation” into whether Hilton blocked consumers’ Wi-Fi devices.

Word of this punishment comes on the heels of the FCC hitting Smart City, an ISP for convention centers and hotels, with a $750,000 fine for kicking users off their hotspots so that they’d have to use Smart City’s more expensive service.

MORE: FCC still has a ton of explaining to do on Wi-Fi blocking rules | How not to get slammed by the FCC 

The FCC started the year by issuing a warning that it will no longer tolerate hotels, convention centers or others intentionally interfering with personal Wi-Fi hotspots. This issue grabbed headlines last fall when Marriott International was fined $600K for blocking customer Wi-Fi hotspots, presumably to encourage the guests to pay for pricey Internet access from the hotel.

The whole issue has concerned wireless LAN product vendors and some WLAN managers, who say they aren’t quite sure what they are or aren’t allowed to do nowadays in terms of wireless LAN security and management (See “WiFi blocking debate far from over”).

In its new enforcements, the FCC says that M.C. Dean blocked consumers’ Wi-Fi connections/mobile hotspots at the Baltimore Convention Center on dozens of occasions with the intention of making them pay fees to M.C. Dean for service access. M.C. Dean acknowledged using “Auto Block Mode” on its Wi-Fi system whose manual described this technique as “shoot first, and ask questions later.” It even appears to have blocked Wi-Fi hotspots outside the venue, including in passing vehicles.

“Consumers are tired of being taken advantage of by hotels and convention centers that block their personal Wi-Fi connections,” said Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, in a statement.  “This disturbing practice must come to an end. It is patently unlawful for any company to maliciously block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections.” 

As the exclusive provider of Wi-Fi access at the Baltimore Convention Center, M.C. Dean charges exhibitors and visitors as much as $1,095 per event for Wi-Fi access, the FCC said.  The Commission last year received a complaint from a company that provides gear that enables users to establish hotspots at conventions and trade shows. 

“The Commission today charges M.C. Dean with violating Section 333 of the Communications Act by maliciously interfering with or causing interference to lawful Wi-Fi hotspots,” according to the FCC.

HILTON FACING WI-FI BLOCKING FINE TOO

In an unrelated case, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed a $25,000 fine against Hilton Worldwide Holdings, for apparently getting in the way of an investigation into whether Hilton too tried to block consumers’ Wi-Fi devices. Hilton is being directed “to immediately provide essential information and documents about its Wi-Fi management practices and warns the company that it may face a significantly higher fine for any continued obstruction or delay.” 

This investigation stems from an August, 2014 consumer complaint stemming from an incident at an Anaheim, Calif., Hilton that allegedly blocked consumers’ Wi-Fi if they didn’t pay Hilton a $500 access fee. The FCC also received complaints regarding other Hilton properties. The FCC has been waiting about a year for Hilton to cough up information, and thus the fine, with a threat of more to come.

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