Unlicensed spectrum needs clear rules or no rules, not guesswork in between

29 December 2015 by Steve Blum
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Not just another monkey.

There are no rules against blocking someone else’s WiFi hotspot, according to the two republican members of the Federal Communications Commission. Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly posted dissents to a decision to fine M.C. Dean, a concessionaire at the Baltimore convention center, $718,000 for interfering with attendees ability to connect to their own mobile hotspots.

On the surface, it’s a Catch-22 argument: Pai and O’Rielly are saying that since people who use unlicensed spectrum – Part 15 users, in FCC jargon – have to accept any interference they receive, interfering with them isn’t really interference. It’s tempting to write off the dissents as partisan bickering, but there are two important issues that should be addressed.

The first is whether unlicensed users can do whatever they want, without regard to other unlicensed users (interfering with a licensed user is absolutely forbidden – no one is arguing with that). Part 15 of U.S. telecoms law, the unlicensed spectrum part, says yes, the law of the jungle applies. But there’s another, more general section of the rules (section 333, if you’re keeping count) that flatly prohibits causing any willfull or malicious interference to anyone else who is using the airwaves legally. It’s an apparent contradiction that needs to be unambiguously resolved by the FCC.

The second is whether sending a digital authorisation signal to someone else’s WiFi device – electronically leaning into the middle of the conversation and saying shut up – is malicious interference, or just a rude but allowable use of standard protocols. It’s a digital dilemma posed by rules written in an analog age.

FCC staff made the proper call in this and other WiFi blocking cases, but Pai and Rielly are correct in saying that the commission needs to formally update and clarify its rules. With the looming prospect of mobile carriers using unlicensed spectrum to supplement their assigned frequencies – technological 500 pound gorillas jumping into a cage full of WiFi monkeys – these questions have to be answered once and for all.