The FCC, acting on a petition from the hotel industry, has begun an interesting debate: when or whether hotels (or in principle, other enterprises) could ever block Wi-Fi on consumers’ personal devices, like smartphones.
For the record, Cisco’s view is that — absent a security threat, attack, or other compelling interest — enterprises should not block personal Wi-Fi hotspots to promote their commercial interests, or for other purposes.
However, in limited cases where there is a significant security threat, attack or other compelling interest, enterprises should be able to defend their network, data and devices. We should be clear: the mere presence of personal hot spots at a facility does not represent a security threat or interest.
As with any issue involving technology, there’s a lot of confusion over what the issues and facts are.
Let’s take a look at the facts:
1. Under federal law, no one entity “owns” or “controls” access to unlicensed airwaves. Consumers can use unlicensed airwaves (on devices that have been certified for use by the FCC) wherever they want, whenever they want. As Wi-Fi “hot spot” capability is added to our smartphones, this is becoming much more common and is great for consumers.
2. Enterprises, particularly those which are open to the public or where the public is routinely invited, are increasingly installing their own managed Wi-Fi networks for the use of the visiting public, their own operations, or for other customers, such as businesses that lease space on a convention floor. And this development, too, is great for consumers and great for our economy, enabling business to get done at Internet speed.
Now, the wonderful thing about Wi-Fi is that everyone can use it, and, especially with blazing-fast new technologies such as IEEE 802.11ac, there’s plenty of capacity for all to share.
Consequently – as a general rule — enterprises should not block access to personal hot spots as a routine matter. Using security technology to shut down Wi-Fi signals that are not a threat to the co-located network is a bad practice that Cisco does not support.
In our filing at the FCC, Cisco asked the FCC to declare that “the mere presence of a personal hot spot or ad hoc client does not constitute a security threat in any venue or physical location where the public is routinely present or invited. “ This is consistent with our view that everyone should have the expectation of using unlicensed airwaves on FCC-approved devices.
But what if the enterprise’s managed Wi-Fi network comes under cyber attack, such as a denial of service attack by another Wi-Fi transmitter or a “honeypot” where the enterprise’s own client devices are lured away by an unmanaged access point for nefarious purposes?
What if some bad actor uses Wi-Fi technology to attack the enterprise’s Wi-Fi network, its data or devices?
Then of course, network administrators should be able to protect against such attacks. Making sure the enterprise network can operate in the face of an attack is beneficial – to the public as well as to the enterprise.
Additionally, there are other limited cases of enterprise regulation of Wi-Fi that should be allowed to stand. A hospital may not want Wi-Fi in portions of its facilities. An enterprise may have a secured lab or portions of a government facility may be “off limits” to consumer electronics, including Wi-Fi. Those are fair constraints, and the FCC should permit reasonable exceptions when there is a compelling interest, particularly in locations where the general public is not routinely present.
As Wi-Fi continues to become the leading form of Internet access, questions like this one will surely arise.
The FCC and interested parties must take steps to ensure that Wi-Fi continues to thrive for the benefit of consumers, businesses and the economy.