On January 27, 2015, the Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau released an Enforcement Advisory indicating that the Bureau would continue to enforce prohibitions on wireless jamming equipment set out in Section 333 of the Communications Act against hotels, convention centers, and other commercial establishments (or the network operators serving any of these types of establishments) if they intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots. The Enforcement Bureau’s advisory indicated that it would enforce this prohibition against Wi-Fi blocking “including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network” but did not limit the potential for enforcement action solely to Wi-Fi blocking performed for that purpose. In a related statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler noted that the Communications Act prohibited willfully interfering with authorized radio communications, including interfering with Wi-Fi signals.
The Enforcement Bureau’s advisory and the FCC Chairman’s statement follow a trend of recent enforcement actions against a seller of Wi-Fi blocking equipment, a lodging operator employing Wi-Fi blocking equipment on its premises, and a foreign manufacturer of Wi-Fi blocking equipment (among other types of jamming equipment) sold at retail to U.S. customers. Collectively, these developments proved problematic for a petition by the hospitality and lodging industry seeking FCC approval for the use of Wi-Fi blocking equipment or in the alternative an FCC rulemaking on its permissible use. The petition’s rulemaking request was premised in part on the notion that prohibiting Wi-Fi blocking equipment under Section 333 conflicted with the Part 15 rule requirement for unlicensed Wi-Fi devices to accept interference, but the Enforcement Bureau’s advisory and recent enforcement actions seemingly dispelled this view. Not surprisingly, in the wake of the Enforcement Bureau’s advisory, the petitioners withdrew their petition at the FCC and announced instead plans to study protections against cybersecurity threats over their Wi-Fi networks.