Technology Blog

Can We Improve Wi-Fi Regulations?

Guest Blogger

Some complain that the FCC made a mistake in their Marriott ruling and the resulting Enforcement advisory against Wi-Fi blocking. In case you missed it, they were fined $600k for preventing consumers from using their own hotspots so they would have to buy expensive Internet service from the Marriott. Those who disagree don’t think Marriott should be allowed to force consumers into buying their expensive Internet services, but that an organization should be able to control the RF environment on their own property. One could also debate whether sending a deauth is actually interfering with the RF, but I think that’s splitting hairs.

 

The contention is that an organization needs to be able to manage the RF environment on their property to ensure good performance of their network. Healthcare environments inevitably come up because of their variety of medical devices that need a reliable WLAN. Patient lives could be jeopardized by interference caused by a plethora of personal hotspots polluting the airwaves. If an organization can’t deauth unauthorized and/or interfering devices to keep them off the air, lives could be endangered. An organization would never be able to rely on their WLAN and it would become useless.

 

Inevitably, someone will point out that the regulations currently in place say you don’t own the RF on your property. Spectrum is regulated by the FCC and they have the final say. This statement of fact is often met with hostility. The messenger is shot. Nothing is accomplished. Rinse and repeat.

 

I don’t know if the existing regulations are right or wrong, but they are worthy of discussion and debate. We need to discuss ideas on what the regulations really should be. How the regulations could be changed to better meet the needs of WLAN operators. Instead of complaining that things aren’t the way they should be, we need to start talking about the way they could be.

 

Let’s start simple and say that critical environments, such as healthcare, are allowed to deauth clients of personal hotspots on their property to keep them from interfering with critical systems. Sounds like a good idea on the face of it, but it’s not that easy when we start getting into the details. How do we define critical systems? Is that the entire RF environment or only those channels used by the yet-to-be-defined critical systems? Given that RF doesn’t observe property boundaries, how do we know we are deauthing a device that’s even on our property? How do we ensure that neighboring WLANs aren’t misidentified and their clients unintentionally deauthed?

 

What about very large WLANs, such as those found on a university campus? Should they be allowed to control their RF environment? They have large campuses with thousands of APs and a variety of difficult environments. These range from dorms, where it’s probably amazing that they’ve made the wireless work at all, to high density lecture halls and stadiums, and often even their own healthcare facilities. The students and staff rely on the wireless constantly. Should these network engineers be allowed to limit what uses the RF? If we extend these rules to large WLANs and/or universities, why not extend them to anyone who owns their property? Who decides what’s acceptable in multi-tenant buildings?

 

The answers to many of these questions come easier in the healthcare arena because lives may be on the line, but once you get into other environments, I think it gets a bit harder to decide. This definitely isn’t a easy issue to address and if any change is going to happen, it’s going to take some time and a lot of thought. No matter what decision is made, there’s no way to make everyone happy.

 

Of course, an important question to answer is whether or not this is a moot point. As 802.11w becomes more widespread, it will presumably make it’s way into the consumer devices and then it won’t be possible to deauth clients of these devices. If we can’t deauth the clients, then does it even make sense to continue the discussion? Maybe the only real ways to enforce an RF use policy are to either have your own licensed spectrum (a very expensive proposition) or escort offenders off your property…

 

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