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The Federal Communications Commission plans to fine the Baltimore Convention Center’s Wi-Fi provider $718,000 for allegedly blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots at the venue for a 26-day period last year, a charge the company disputes. (File photo)

FCC: Wi-Fi firm blocked mobile hotspots at Baltimore venue

The Federal Communications Commission plans to fine the Baltimore Convention Center’s Wi-Fi provider $718,000 for allegedly blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots at the venue for a 26-day period last year, a charge the company disputes.

Virginia-based M.C. Dean Inc., an electrical design-build and information technology firm, was accused of blocking personal mobile hotspots when convention center visitors and exhibitors tried to set up a connection with their own data plans instead of paying for M.C. Dean’s Wi-Fi service. The FCC Enforcement Bureau investigated M.C. Dean last year after the commission received a complaint from a company that provides equipment that allows users to create hotspots at conventions and trade shows, according to a statement from the FCC.

“Consumers are tired of being taken advantage of by hotels and convention centers that block their personal Wi-Fi connections,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, in a statement. “This disturbing practice must come to an end. It is patently unlawful for any company to maliciously block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections.”

But M.C. Dean argues that the FCC authorized the company’s equipment and that equipment was used within regulations.

“M.C. Dean acted in good faith and in compliance with applicable law by providing a safe and reliable Wi-Fi service to customers while ensuring that visitors could use their personal Wi-Fi hotspots at the Baltimore Convention Center,” said M.C. Dean in a statement.

Convention center spokeswoman Jennifer Douglass confirmed Tuesday that M.C. Dean is still the center’s Wi-Fi provider.

“They have been compliant in allowing access, although limited, in the last year,” said Douglass, adding that convention center officials have not read the FCC’s official ruling yet.

The FCC’s investigation found that M.C. Dean blocked hotspots on “dozens of occasions” last year using an “Auto Block Mode” on its Wi-Fi system. That setting also allegedly blocked hotspots outside the convention center including passing cars, according to the FCC’s statement.

The FCC charged M.C. Dean with violating section 333 of the Communications Act by “maliciously interfering with or causing interference to lawful Wi-Fi hotspots,” a statute M.C. Dean argued does not apply to this case and said in a statement that the statute has “never been interpreted by the FCC to cover such activities.”

M.C. Dean also argued that the FCC failed to clearly explain its requirements.

“While the FCC tells Congress that there is a ‘legitimate use’ of the type of network management equipment employed by M.C. Dean, the agency refuses to provide any guidance about when and under what circumstances the use of such equipment will be deemed to violate the law,” M.C. Dean said in a statement, adding that those murky rules require the company to “guess” how they’re supposed to follow the law.

The FCC has been cracking down on cases of possible Wi-Fi blocking in the past year. M.C. Dean is the commission’s third major enforcement action. In October 2014, the FCC fined Bethesda-based Marriott International, Inc. and Marriott Hotel Services, Inc. $600,000 for Wi-Fi blocking at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. In August 2015, the FCC fined Smart City Holdings, LLC $750,000 for blocking hotspots at several convention centers across the country, according to the FCC statement.