FCC's Rosenworcel Questions Hofstra Debate Wi-Fi Policy

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel thinks there may be something amiss with Hofstra University charging journalists for Wi-Fi at the presidential debate at the school Monday night.

"Something not right with the #WiFi situation at @HofstraU last night. Here's what #FCC precedent says," she tweeted, citing an August 2015 FCC enforcement action against Smart Cities Networks for interfering with Wi-Fi networks at conference facilities where it operated, and charged for, its own Wi-Fi access.

In that case, the FCC imposed a $750,000 civil penalty.

According to multiple press reports, reporters were required to pay $200 for Wi-Fi access and discouraged from using their own hot spots. FCC rules do not allow anyone to "willfully or maliciously interfere with...any radio communication."

A Rosenworcel spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on what, specifically, she thought might not be right.

According to Business Insider, Hofstra explained its policy in the following statement:

"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."

As to suggestions it discouraged the use of alternative wireless internet access, the news outlet said the university explained: "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."

FCC rules also prevent willful interference with another radio signal.

A Hofstra spokesperson had not returned a call for comment at press time.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.