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The FCC may investigate the $200 Wi-Fi at the first presidential debate

In the lead-up to the first presidential debate on Monday, Hofstra University dropped a bombshell on journalists attending the event to cover it for various publications. Instead of providing free Wi-Fi or offering the service for a nominal fee, attendees were expected to pony up $200 per person. Now the FCC has been asked to investigate the matter, based on the fact that Hofstra may have broken multiple laws. Reports from the debate floor indicate the school didn’t just try to fleece journalists — it deployed a scanning device to detect and shutdown any personal hotspots or ad hoc wireless networks anyone on the floor attempted to create.

According to a 2015 public notice published by the FCC, “Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hotspots is illegal.” under section 333 of the Communications Act. Marriott was fined several years ago by the FCC over its decision to block and interfere with the hotspots guests created. Then, as now, the law on the matter is quite clear — forcing people to use your incredibly expensive Internet by disconnecting them from their own devices isn’t legal.

One of the FCC commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, has asked the agency to investigate Hofstra’s actions. Right now, it’s not clear if Hofstra actually broke the law. The question may hinge on whether Hofstra actually used its device to block Wi-Fi, or if it simply spoke to individuals and told them they couldn’t use their own hardware. A statement sent to Ars Technica by Hofstra claims that the $200 per-person fee did not cover the cost of building out a separate Wi-Fi network for journalists and those attending the debate, and that people who were found to be broadcasting an unauthorized access point were asked “to visit the RF desk located in the Hall. The CPD RF engineer would determine if the device could broadcast without interference.”

It’s hard to buy these statements when you see the price sheets for all the other services Hofstra offered. Digital darkroom access (for photographers) was $75, but if you wanted wired Ethernet for the debate, it was $325. Printer access cost $250 for a black-and-white laser, and $400 for a multi-function laser printer with a scanner. Need to rent a 42-inch TV? That was $565.

Hofstra undoubtedly shucked out big bucks for hosting the debate, and we don’t blame the university for wanting to recoup some of that cost. But forced Wi-Fi redirection really isn’t the way to do it — especially since the service apparently wasn’t even very good and dropped out at least once during the evening. If the FCC decides to get involved, Hofstra could lose more than it made on the entire affair; penalties for Wi-Fi interference have previously been in the $650,000 to $750,000 range.

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