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FCC Official Asks Agency To Investigate Ban On Journalists' Wi-Fi Personal Hotspots At Debate (arstechnica.com) 176

Yesterday, it was reported that journalists attending the presidential debate at Hofstra University were banned from using personal hotspots and were told they had to pay $200 to access the event's Wi-Fi. The journalists were reportedly offered the option to either turn off their personal hotspots or leave the debate. Cyrus Farivar via Ars Technica is now reporting that "one of the members of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, has asked the agency to investigate the Monday evening ban." Ars Technica reports: Earlier, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted, saying that something was "not right" with what Hofstra did. She cited an August 2015 order from the FCC, forcing a company called SmartCity to no longer engage in Wi-Fi blocking and to pay $750,000. Ars has since updated their report with a statement from Karla Schuster, a spokeswoman for Hofstra University: The Commission on Presidential Debates sets the criteria for services and requires that a completely separate network from the University's network be built to support the media and journalists. This is necessary due to the volume of Wi-Fi activity and the need to avoid interference. The Rate Card fee of $200 for Wi-Fi access is to help defray the costs and the charge for the service does not cover the cost of the buildout. For Wi-Fi to perform optimally the system must be tuned with each access point and antenna. When other Wi-Fi access points are placed within the environment the result is poorer service for all. To avoid unauthorized access points that could interfere, anyone who has a device that emits RF frequency must register the device. Whenever a RF-emitting device was located, the technician notified the individual to visit the RF desk located in the Hall. The CPD RF engineer would determine if the device could broadcast without interference.
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FCC Official Asks Agency To Investigate Ban On Journalists' Wi-Fi Personal Hotspots At Debate

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  • by Bruce66423 ( 1678196 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @05:53PM (#52972781)

    Of course given that's the basis on which the USA came into existence in the first place, maybe we shouldn't be surprised if people are still offering that sort of justification... ;)

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:01PM (#52972829)

      The law bans active jamming of Wifi signals. That is not what Hofstra did. They just made a policy announcement. That is not the same thing at all.

      Should it be illegal for movie theaters to have cellphone bans? How is this different?

      • How is this different?

        Only the FCC can regulate the airwaves, much like only the FAA can regulate the navigable skies.

        Now, this idea of it being physical trespassing if somebody doesn't comply is interesting, but this has come up before, such as what happened here [slashdot.org].

        • "Only the FCC can regulate the airwaves, much like only the FAA can regulate the navigable skies."

          Define 'regulate'. You mean send men with guns when someone does what is not allowed?

          Of do you mean escorting a user to the 'RF Desk' to agree to stop doing what is not to be tolerated?

      • Should it be illegal for movie theaters to have cellphone bans? How is this different?

        It seems different because they said you can't use your own thing, you have to pay us $200 to use ours, rather than x is banned.

      • by houghi ( 78078 )

        I think it would be illegal if they not only asked you to NOT use your phone but provide one of their phones at 7.50USD for the duration of the movie.

    • No, that was more like "Laws imposed upon the governed without their just consent are invalid". Or, if you like, "We don't have to obey laws that we didn't get to vote on in any way."
  • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @05:56PM (#52972801)

    When you have a large group of people sucking data on their cell phones in an area where they don't usually congregate, it's likely NOBODY will get ANY data to start with. Cell phone networks are usually provisioned for "just enough" capacity under normal circumstances and where they sometimes build in extra capacity in places where large crowds tend to gather regularly, they usually dump the bandwidth available to data into carrying voice as the crowd grows.

    So... Even if you had turned on your cell data, it's unlikely to have been very useful once the crowd started to show up and post on their facebook and twitter feeds.

    So, pay up if you want WiFi that's going to work you fools.

    • by dknj ( 441802 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:06PM (#52972861) Journal

      you underestimate the free or low cost tenant agreements mobile providers are given by the universities. on my little podunk state-funded school, we had 8 base stations per building to ensure sufficient coverage. they would provide additional mobile base stations for larger activities such as graduation. you know the one commonality all these devices shared? a fiber connection back to a switch in a room they controlled and an rj45 that came out which we gladly provided free bandwidth on our (then) internet2 backhaul. 2 hops and they were directly on the federal and education funded backbone (of the time).

      this was over 10 years ago. i'm pretty sure they (the mobile carriers) can handle the large^H^H^H^H^H relatively small gathering of people using data.

      -dk

    • They actually have base stations in semi trucks they can move to where they need the data, add power and voila!
      • Which takes time and $$ to do. So what's in it for the Cell company? Not much, unless the venue offers to pay for the increased service, which, if I could venture a guess, isn't high on the "need to spend money on this" list, given that this was a one time thing. Plus, it can be a *real* headache to try and add coverage for a few thousand handsets without making trouble for yourself by putting the cells to close together where they overlap too much and cause a bunch of thrashing as phones keep switching c

        • by slew ( 2918 )

          For a presidential debate that lasts only a few hours, I imagine the big 3 would gladly roll in a 4G-LTE COWs that can handle a few hundred journalists gratis. No service provider wants to get the reputation with journalists that they are unreliable for a big story like this. That would be death by a thousand small cuts of ink (and you never want to make enemies with someone who buys ink by the barrel)...

          For 5K joe-averages at generic-medium sized entertainment venue, well, one COW won't do it anyhow, an

        • by sphealey ( 2855 )

          I don't have a link for the specific article, but Washington University reported that they would have 8 portable cell towers in operation to supplement the usual service ( https://debate.wustl.edu/ [wustl.edu] ). That compares to the 1992 debate, when they had the phone company install 3500 temporary phone lines and converted athletic building showers into film developing cubicles [1]

          sPh

          fn1: still the 1904 Olympics gym and locker room at that time with heavy-duty tile everwhere

    • by NoKaOi ( 1415755 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:08PM (#52972869)

      You don't think a system at a university university with over 10k students streaming video over youtube, Facebook, netflix, etc, could handle a bunch of tweeting reporters?

      • You don't think a system at a university university with over 10k students streaming video over youtube, Facebook, netflix, etc, could handle a bunch of tweeting reporters?

        No, I don't think the CELL system would have handled the increased load unless the venue was used often at this capacity...

        Plus, doing WiFi for 3,000 in a small building is a lit more complex than it seems to the casual user...

        But that's not what we are really talking about in this article. I get the feeling they are mixing up a couple of things that don't really go together.

        • No, I don't think the CELL system would have handled the increased load unless the venue was used often at this capacity...

          Well, you're wrong.

          Plus, doing WiFi for 3,000 in a small building is a lit more complex than it seems to the casual user...

          But that's not what we are really talking about in this article. I get the feeling they are mixing up a couple of things that don't really go together.

          WiFi wasn't needed from the venue. People needed to be able to use their own connections. The venue wanted to profit. And yes, they're profiting. $200 per head for access, equipment and install and config done as a line item on someone else's dime, and they keep everything in the end.

        • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @07:09PM (#52973157) Journal

          No, I don't think the CELL system would have handled the increased load unless the venue was used often at this capacity...

          Hofstra has been used for this purpose before, and for much bigger conferences than the measly 1000 people in the hall last night.

          They charged $200/head for their wi-fi hotspot. $200,000 can pay for a lot of bandwidth for a 90 minute event.

        • You think students wouldn't want to go online with their cell phones? Actually, PRIMARILY with their cell phone?

          What luddite university did you go to?

    • by aaarrrgggh ( 9205 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @09:17PM (#52973681)

      No, it is about mutual benefit. Even if n journalists are competing for the limited cell signal, they will saturate 2.5 and 5ghz with hotspots, eliminating wifi as a useful tool.

      Using your phone as a camera or whatever would be fine... fight for cell signal. Everyone else benefits with more reliable wifi...

      • The venue's measures would not change the situation. These devices do not operate with a requirement of exclusive access to frequencies. They *already* share spectrum remarkably well, and channel/frequency-hop and adjust power as necessary.
    • "Cell phone networks are usually provisioned for "just enough" capacity under normal circumstances"

      Oh, like where I HAVE LUNCH MONDAY THROUGH THURSDAY?

      Yeah, where I eat lunch four days a week there is not enough cell capacity for those 2 hours when we all march out to eat, surf, and post.

      I can eat where 'free' WiFi is offered. If I choose something more interesting, I suffer the vagaries of cell service and the inadequate provisioning of my provider. Ack.

      And I stick it out, because the rest of the time it's

  • not limitless (Score:4, Interesting)

    by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:16PM (#52972927) Homepage Journal

    There is not a limitless amount of bandwidth to broadcast in a small area. Most of these devices are operating in the same spectrum (since they are WiFi, UHF and SHF). The FCC almost certainly has the exclusive legal right to regulate the radio spectrum, but the organizer of an event should be given some way to coordinate and organize access to the limited resource. That the FCC lacks any way for an event to legally do something that I believe they should be doing. I argue that the FCC needs a form and a fee for this sort of thing before organizers are allowed to restrict WiFi access. And that requests are temporary and limited to santioned events and not for a coffee shop or theme park that wants to gouge customers.

    Of course I'm ignoring the issue of free speech. Does your right to free speech include running your own WiFi network to circumvent a potentially malicious organization's WiFi?

    $200 per head seems about right on price, if I had to hire some consultants to throw together a network for 3 days, then tear it all down, seems like a bargain.

    • Re:not limitless (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ewhac ( 5844 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:47PM (#52973071) Homepage Journal

      $200 per head seems about right on price, if I had to hire some consultants to throw together a network for 3 days, then tear it all down, seems like a bargain

      I dunno what prices you've been conned into paying, but that parses as gouging to me.

      Consultants aren't necessary; Hofstra already has an IT infrastructure and staff in place. At worst, they'd have to deploy a couple dozen more WAPs and maybe a 24-port switch if you don't already have the ports free -- maybe USD$4000.00 worth of HW. Set up a new SSID for the reporters with a WPA2 login, which lands you on a temporary VLAN and subnet that routes directly to the Internet and nowhere else. Takes maybe a day to set up, and most of that is CS interns/undergrads pulling Cat.6 and placing WAPs/antennas.

      After the debate, turn off the SSID, VLAN, and subnet -- you can pull out the WAPs (if you must) at your leisure. Put the HW away; save it for the next big event, or when an endowment arrives for the next building.

      How does this justify $200/head? (Seriously; what am I not figuring here?)

      • $200/head might be the price point that the media companies won't complain.

      • As soon as you see a phrase like "defray the costs of the buildout" used to translate "we've turned your wifi off to make some money", you know they're struggling to justify what they're doing..
      • by Lose ( 1901896 )
        If I gave them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was strategic: price it high enough to limit the strain on their wireless network, but then similarly not so high that those who would actually use it and need it to be reliable are screwed over. Then sod off anyone who didn't like it. Not that I'd expect them to actually come out and say something like that.

        But, let's keep going and try to make it look better for them.

        If we assume they sprung for high-end enterprise grade access points that won't dr
        • Re:not limitless (Score:4, Informative)

          by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot AT worf DOT net> on Wednesday September 28, 2016 @01:14AM (#52974547)

          If I gave them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was strategic: price it high enough to limit the strain on their wireless network, but then similarly not so high that those who would actually use it and need it to be reliable are screwed over. Then sod off anyone who didn't like it. Not that I'd expect them to actually come out and say something like that.

          Except it did go down. It completely collapsed under the load.

          I understand the need and that if everyone brought their own hotspot that it would be completely useless. But that's not the way to do it. At $200, it sounds like gouging - especially when you consider they actually did active scans for unauthorized WiFi and escorted people out.

          The problem is many - first, the price appeared to be gouging. Second, active WiFi scanning - granted, they didn't jam (which was what got the hotels in trouble) but escorted you off the premises so it was technically legal. Third, they could've offered suggestions that people use hard wire (USB) tethers or built-in WWAN modems to achieve connectivity instead of WiFI Most of the people there would be using tablets, laptops, etc, many models of which have WWAN capability either built-in through USB dongles. Or a USB cable to their phones (practically all smartphones allow USB tethering)

          Because right now, it appears to be gouging. Which is why the FCC is irked. I'm sure if they simply suggested other methods, politely asked anyone using WiFi to turn it off and use non-WiFi methods, etc.

          Yes, a lot of wifi causes problems - Apple has had problems during their keynotes because everyone had their hotspots on, but there are many ways it can be handled without it seeming like pure greed.

    • I was thinking that $200 was a bit too low, given the transitory nature of the setup, use 3 days and move on part of this... Network engineers on travel don't come cheap you know.
    • the organizer of an event should be given some way to coordinate and organize access to the limited resource.

      They can... They get an FCC licenses for restricted RF bands, and use those, instead of heavy-handed attempts at individuals co-opting and monopolizing unlicensed bands.

  • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:23PM (#52972963)

    The "blocking" that was illegal uses RF to kill a rouge access point, intentionally interfering with a licensed use of the spectrum the FCC is tasked to regulate..... This is squarely in the wheel house of the FCC, who's job includes protecting the licensed users of spectrum from interference.

    What was done here is put a requirement in a contract that required you to turn off your RF emitters carried into the facility unless the facility engineer approved it's use. This is 100% legal and the FCC doesn't have anything authority to regulate this. In fact, this is commonly referred to as "frequency coordination" and given the large number of possible devices showing up, makes perfect sense to me. You don't want some rouge RF device getting turned on and interfering with Lester's Wireless microphone in the middle of a question. So, you make it part of your contract that ALL RF emitting devices are subject to inspection and approval before they are allowed into the venue and turned on.

    So the two cases are not the same and the venue operator has broken no laws.

    • by Luthair ( 847766 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:30PM (#52972995)
      Damn reporters tarting up their access points with makeup, shouldn't be allowed.
    • Exactly this. What the University can't prohibit is someone on different property running a competing wifi network. If they allow some hotspots or allowed you to pay a fee to run your own hotspot I could see some creative arguments to be made. What you absolutely don't have a right to do is to carry whatever you want onto someone else's property. Take for example weapons bans which prohibit students from bringing knives to school, to Disney World, etc. You can tell people that they are not welcome if they b

      • What you absolutely don't have a right to do is to carry whatever you want onto someone else's property. Take for example weapons bans which prohibit students from bringing knives to school, to Disney World, etc.

        Except you increasingly DO have that right.

        "a growing number of states are passing laws where the right to ban firearms does not extend to vehicles in employer parking lots."
        - http://www.employmentlawdaily.... [employmentlawdaily.com]

        Schools are increasingly being thrown open to concealed guns:
        - http://neatoday.org/2015/03/ [neatoday.org]

        • First, note thought that I was using the firearms example as a hyperbolic one, it's a harder argument to ban them due to constitutional protection and even so we're just beginning to see erosion of the right to ban them. Electronic devices would be somewhere far down the list. Second, we're not talking about a parking lot here, we're talking about an already secured area where many other things are also prohibited.

          • Electronic devices would be somewhere far down the list.

            Except these electronic devices can call 911 in the event of emergency, which gives them all manner of very special legal protections.

            Second, we're not talking about a parking lot here,

            That was only one of the two exceptions I referenced. The other isn't limited to parking lots.

      • What you absolutely don't have a right to do is to carry whatever you want onto someone else's property. Take for example weapons bans which prohibit students from bringing knives to school, to Disney World, etc. You can tell people that they are not welcome if they bring X onto your property all you want.

        This isn't the same. I'm still allowed to take my mobile device into the event. They just didn't want me to use a certain feature of that device. That is different than not allowing an item altogether.

        • Oh sure it is.. Private property owners are given great latitude in controlling who may access their property and under what terms they allow access. For instance the venue owner may make the following rule:

          You may bring in your phone, but you must declare it and it must remain in airplane mode at all times on the premises. (which is actually MORE restrictive than what happened here)

          Then the owners can legally enforce that rule by searching people entering, refusing to allow anybody who doesn't agree to t

    • Nobody that entered the arena signed a contract. You wanna claim that show me one.

      If I was one of the reporters I would have run my wifi hotspot from inside a pocket or backpack.

      There is simply no reasonable way you can enforce a restriction like this without jamming wifi hotspots. You'd need a ton of gear and a bunch of trained people to find the people running hotspots (triangulating this down to a single person in a group of a hundred people using wifi would be a serious pain in the ass) and eject them a

    • by lgw ( 121541 )

      So, you're telling me that selling licenses to use part of the radio spectrum for $200 is somehow not licensing the spectrum?

      Man, some people will twist themselves into knots to defend anything.

      • No licenses where being sold, and the $200 was for access to the WiFi network, paying for the service. Apart from violating the TOS I have with my provider, I can sell wifi service to you....

        You guys are conflating is two separate things.... The "selling" of WiFi service (which is 100% legal), and the desire of the venue to coordinate the use of both licensed and part 15 intentional emitters within the confines of the venue which is legal too.

        But hey, don't let me get in your way of a good story line...

        • by lgw ( 121541 )

          The obvious and intended effect of their actions was to deny access to that part of the spectrum unless a fee was paid. But keep inventing legal fictions - but why would you even try to defend these schmucks?

          • Gee, I will stick to my perspective while you keep changing yours...

            First they where selling licenses, but that didn't work with the facts so you dropped that. Now they where denying access to part of the spectrum, which isn't true either...

            They where NOT preventing anybody from operating on any spectrum they wished, you could walk outside of the venue and crank up your WiFi hotspot anytime you wished. Private property owners have the right to allow or deny any activity on their property they choose, inc

            • by lgw ( 121541 )

              They where NOT preventing anybody from operating on any spectrum they wished, you could walk outside of the venue and crank up your WiFi hotspot anytime you wished. Private property owners have the right to allow or deny any activity on their property they choose

              C'mon, that's so obviously not true I'm not sure how you finished typing it. Anyway, the airwaves are special. You can't charge a fee to have access to them on your property. (So many things are special that it's hard to think of them as special cases these days - there are exceptions to just about everything you wrote - for example, you can't make rules that have the effect of excluding black people from your property. There's lots of case law around dress codes.) Excluding is different from restrictin

  • by guruevi ( 827432 ) <evi@@@evcircuits...com> on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @06:24PM (#52972967) Homepage

    I've seen the commercial offerings that claim you need to tune the antennas. They seem to have gone a step further and have a dedicated tech for "detecting interference". At best it is a hotspot management tool, usually it's expensive snake oil. Especially on a small area like this, a good set of APs should be able to handle the "load" and have enough power to handle other APs, especially the weak phone ones.

  • by ZorinLynx ( 31751 ) on Tuesday September 27, 2016 @07:30PM (#52973229) Homepage

    I can totally understand banning Wifi hotspot access points at big crowded events like this. Just a few dozen in the same area is enough to completely use all available bandwidth in the form of beacons. Performance will suck for EVERYONE, including the venue WiFi.

    Why not just use a cable? Most phones support tethering over USB, and it'll even perform better than WiFi hotspot mode because it's a direct cable connection so the only RF you're doing is cellular. I always try to do USB tethering when possible to avoid polluting the airwaves with my needless access point.

    • I can totally understand banning Wifi hotspot access points at big crowded events like this.

      I can totally understand many things which happen to be illegal. I don't think anyone is dumbfounded by the idea of theft, extortion, etc.

      Performance will suck for EVERYONE, including the venue WiFi.

      Then the venue should have licensed their own radio spectrum from the FCC. Guaranteed there would be zero contention for their band, then.

      You don't get to monopolize unlicensed spectrum, and tell people they can't use t

      • Actually on private property you can tell people they can't use their device or they can leave.
        • Actually on private property you can tell people they can't use their device or they can leave.

          Nope. There are presumably millions of exceptions to that statement. You're obviously not a lawyer, and clearly not qualified to weigh-in on whether any regs were violated. The fact that the FCC has taken an interest clearly shows it's not cut and dried.

  • What about those of us who use Bluetooth tethering routinely? I only do it to take advantage of the vastly lower power requirements of Bluetooth (which my phone can serve all day) versus wifi (which'll slag my phone's batteries in under three hours, assuming they start out at 100%).

    *sigh*

  • Because a presidential political debate is a public function from which reporters are expected to file stories as part of their editorial function, Hofstra has no business preventing people from using their own cellular communications and should be massively spanked for this action. Besides, it's a university, with a crapton of money rolling in from those huge tuitions, not a hotel trying to run a business - though the FCC has already ruled that convention hotels can't do this either..

    • If a thousand people try to use their wireless devices at the same time, none are going to work, unless a lot of engineering has been put into designing things.
      Cell Phones might work if there are enough towers covering the area, but WiFi will not as it wasn't designed for that kind of thing.

      • Exactly! That's why the expensive house WiFi collapsed for those who ponied up the $200 gouge.

        All the more reason to let attendees use their own cell connections.

  • On their property, Hofstra certainly has a right to say "No WI-FI Hot Spots Permitted", just as they have a right to post "No Guns Permitted".

    If you do not wish to comply, move along or face trespassing charges.

  • Want to talk about profiteering? Try plugging in a projector in a meeting room or running an extension cord from the wall to your laptop.

    Watch the IBEW folks come running at you screaming!

  • I don't know if it was legal or not, right or not, or whatever. I do know that at least one FCC commissioner is going to be at each debate, each convention, and any major party or inter-party event; so it really pays to make sure all your i's are dotted and t's are crossed.
  • They were prohibiting the use of a type of device. I see nothing about bans of Bluetooth or ZigBee using the 2.4 GHz range.

    I've also seen no reports of sending de-auth packets, which is exactly what the FCC can enforce.

    An institution saying "If you shout during the debate from the audience, we will escort you out" is not a ban on free speech.
    Likewise, saying "If you bring your own access point, you we will escort you out" isn't licensing the 2.4 GHz spectrum.

  • this requirement, then it sounds like the reporters should pass the bill on to the Commission. The members of this commission are the same fine individuals who always decide for us that we shouldn't hear the voices of any third party candidates. So, now I learn that they don't want me to hear live data that doesn't pass through their own network. I wonder what they'll decide I shouldn't hear next.
  • The WiFi bands are unlicensed and users *must* accept interference from other users. The FCC already went through this with the Port Authority when they tried to ban their tenets from offering WiFi services.

    http://www.govtech.com/policy-... [govtech.com]
    https://www.cnet.com/news/fcc-... [cnet.com]

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