Update: A response and clarification from Smart City follows the original article.

Just as I got a Karma Go personal WiFi hotspot, convention centers that block personal hotspots are experiencing a little karma of their own. I thought I’d covered this for TeleRead in January when the FCC fined Marriott $600,000 for blocking users’ personal hotspot signals so it could charge through the nose for its own hotel and convention center WiFi, but apparently it passed me by. (Even though this was before personal hotspots were around, that sort of mindset might be part of why David Rothman had so much trouble getting a WiFi signal when he stayed at a Marriott in 2008.)

Regardless, the FCC issued an enforcement advisory in January declaring that blocking personal hotspots was absolutely verboten, being a violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act. And as if the Marriott fine wasn’t enough to show they meant it, the FCC has just struck again. They’ve fined Smart City Holdings $750,000 (PDF) for blocking personal hotspots at the convention centers they operate so they could charge users $80 a day for Internet access.

Even though they also charge for WiFi access, I’ve never had any trouble with the Indiana Convention Center blocking hotspot access at Gen Con (though I have had trouble getting out on the busiest days when there was a lot of cellular signal congestion). It’s good to know that if something like that did happen, the FCC has my back. So much of our life is in the cloud now, it’s obnoxious when someone wants to try to block it off.

Update: Shortly after I posted this, a representative from Smart City’s PR firm contacted me and asked me if I would add some clarifications and a statement from Smart City. I told him I would be happy to do so, and here it is.

He especially wanted to note that Smart City had no prior indication that what it was doing was illegal (the proceedings actually started at about the same time as the case against Marriott hit its height, back in October of 2014, before the FCC made its broad announcement about the practice being illegal), it did not admit to any liability as part of the consent decree, it used the same technology as a lot of other convention centers and law enforcement agencies, and it affected less than 1% of all devices. He also added, “Smart City provides free Wi-Fi access to nearly 31 million users a year in public spaces.”

Here’s the full statement:

Smart City Networks Issues Statement in Response to Consent Decree with FCC

LAS VEGAS (August 18, 2015) – Smart City Networks (Smart City), the largest independent provider of managed network services to the convention and trade show industry, today announced it has entered into a Consent Decree with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that resolves an investigation related to the use of enabling technologies for managing and protecting Wi-Fi networks. As part of the Consent Decree, Smart City did not admit liability, and the FCC did not find that Smart City violated any laws.

The following is a statement issued by Mark Haley, President of Smart City:

“Our goal has always been to provide world-class services to our customers, and our company takes regulatory compliance extremely seriously. 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.

“We have always acted in good faith, and we had no prior notice that the FCC considered the use of this standardized, ‘available-out-of-the-box’ technology to be a violation of its rules. But when we were contacted by the FCC in October 2014, we ceased using the technology in question.

“While we have strong legal arguments, we’ve determined that mounting a vigorous defense would ultimately prove too costly and too great a distraction for our leadership team. As a result, we’ve chosen to work cooperatively with the FCC, and we are pleased to have resolved this matter. We are eager to return our energies to providing leadership to our industry and delivering world-class services to our clients.”

About Smart City Networks

Smart City Networks is the nation’s leading telecommunications provider to convention centers and hospitality venues. Providing free Wi-Fi access to nearly 31 million users in public spaces, and employing more than 200 team members nationwide, the Las Vegas-headquartered company manages the technology services for more than 3,000 events annually, including virtually every Fortune 500 Company event and major tradeshow. From auto shows to national political party conventions to world economic summits, Smart City Networks has been on the floor, behind the scenes, and maintaining the connections that enable people to make important things happen.


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