AV + Connectivity

World War Wi-Fi

'Who owns the airwaves?' typically has been a question asked about radio and television, but increasingly that debate is centering on wireless networks.

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Smart City $750,000 for blocking exhibitors at several of the convention centers where the company provides Wi-Fi access from connecting to the Internet via their own Wi-Fi hotspots. As part of a settlement, according to the FCC, Smart City also agreed to “not engage in Wi-Fi blocking.”


Announced in August, the fine and settlement came in response to a complaint filed by Trade Show Internet (TSI), an Internet service provider for the events industry that supplies equipment to create hotspots. In its complaint, filed in June 2014, TSI claimed that Smart City “has been unlawfully obstructing TSI’s customers from accessing the Internet” using TSI’s systems at a variety of shows in a number of different convention centers “over the past few years.”

TSI CEO Ian Framson told Convene he was “very pleased” with the FCC’s decision. “We believe the fundamental value of trade shows is to serve as an open marketplace. American consumers value freedom of choice and healthy competition in the marketplace at large,” Framson said. “We must encourage robust competition for telecommunication services at trade shows as a means to achieve better-quality services and lower prices.”

In a statement in response to the FCC decision, Smart City President Mark Haley said that his company’s intention had never been to serve as “gatekeepers to the Internet,” but that “we have occasionally used technologies made available by major equipment manufacturers to prevent wireless devices from significantly interfering with and disrupting the operations of neighboring exhibitors on our convention floors.” He added that while Smart City has “strong legal arguments” in defense of its response to hotspots, “we’ve determined that mounting a vigorous defense would ultimately prove too costly and too great a distraction for our leadership team.”

Meanwhile, there’s no clear resolution for meeting planners who often find themselves caught in the middle of an Internet turf battle. “The issue you’re going to have at a large trade show in one of our buildings is, the planner has paid for Wi-Fi service for everybody at that trade show, and yet you have these individual hotspots that are being launched by individual exhibitors in the trade-show area,” Michael Dominguez, CHSE, senior vice president and chief sales officer for MGM Grand International, recently told Convene. “It starts to pull from your bandwidth you’ve set up, so you’re now going to create a much slower network with many complications and no security as far as who’s jumping on and off the network itself. That is a bigger issue than any finances or anybody trying to get money from it.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.