• United States
Jon Gold
Senior Writer

‘Unlawful’ WiFi hotspot blocking ruling highlights academic IT headaches

News Analysis
Oct 07, 20143 mins

College IT pros react in wake of FCC on Marriott hotel that says it’s illegal to interfere with public airwaves

Managing the wireless environment at the average college or university can be a difficult task at the best of times, and when students and staff start using personal hotspots – the sort that provide wireless data access from the same — it’s not the best of times.

As anyone who’s ever been to any sort of large techie convention knows, these little devices – each of which creates its own Wi-Fi network on the same frequencies as every other Wi-Fi network – can cause a huge amount of interference, making existing networks difficult or impossible to use.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD: Marriott must pay $600,000 for blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots | Gartner: Make way for digital business, risks or die?+

Academia’s IT workers, therefore, could be forgiven for being annoyed at the FCC’s recent ruling that technology designed to interfere with personal hotspot signals is “unlawful.” The commission’s decision against Marriott hotels – which required the chain to reimburse $600,000 in room Wi-Fi charges to unhappy customers – said that the hotelier couldn’t use its own access points to essentially jam MiFis and similar mobile data hubs.

The implications for dorm rooms are obvious – and while it’s unclear how many colleges and universities have implemented this type of technology, it’s a potentially powerful method of keeping the airwaves clear for a school’s own network that, now, can’t be used, according to Austin College network and operations manager Thomas Carter. 

“Any devices brought by students will interfere as the spectrum is fully used by the school’s wireless,” he said. “In the past we’ve used the countermeasures to ‘persuade’ students not to use the devices.”

Lee Badman, head of the nonprofit group EDUCAUSE’s wireless networking constituent group, lists Mi-Fis and similar devices as among the central challenges for academic networks in a recent blog post.

“We watch wireless printer and projector makers continue to live in 1999 for WLAN capabilities, and do little as an industry to fix it. We sit by while mobile titans like Verizon and AT&T pepper the landscape with Mi-Fi devices, and get steamed when students bring classroom Wi-Fi to its knees with iPhone personal hotspots all on channel 2 at power well beyond what our own APs put out. We see client makers still put out 2.4 GHz-only WLAN adapters, and then act surprised when we get trouble tickets for those devices in RF-dirty spaces.”

Pete Hoffswell is a network engineer at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and, like Badman, is a constituent group leader at EDUCAUSE. He said that the FCC ruling in particular doesn’t make him more worried about his ability to manage his network. 

Marriott, according to Hoffswell, was something of a special case.

“Marriott really stepped over the line – they interfered with somebody else’s network, period,” he said. “[Wi-Fi]is public airspace.”

According to Hoffswell, network administrators will just have to grin and bear it, where this type of interference is concerned. Attempts to control the use of interfering devices could even bring secondary problems.

“Students could really rally against [restrictions on device use],” he said. “That’s an open, public spectrum that’s available to anybody.”