Why the FCC is wrong about Wi-Fi price gouging at the Trump-Clinton debate

I have about as much interest in the Trump-Clinton debates as a contest between Hitler and Stalin.  However due to the complete absence of substantive policy issues to discuss, one of the stories to come out of the debate was that  Hofstra University was charging journalists $200 to access Wi-Fi at the event.  Many people were outraged by this, and FCC  commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued a statement:

This would not be the first time the FCC has punished service providers for interfering with Wi-Fi.  In 2014, the FCC fined Marriott Hotels $600,000 for jamming WiFi hotspots to force guests to use expensive hotel Internet.

There’s just one problem with the outrage against Hofstra’s $200 Wi-Fi and the hotspot blocking: the laws of physics.  Unlike a hotel, the debate forum at Hofstra University is a relatively small, open space.  Every Wi-Fi network in that audience would be able to see every other.    As @SwiftOnSecurity pointed out, this would lead to gross interference.   A large portion of the audience was journalists, any without any restrictions, dozens of them could be expected to be operating hotspots.    This is why other events which expect a lot of hotspots in close proximity also ban “rogue access points.”  According to the calculations of the organizers of EMFCamp, “every single rogue access point reduces the speed of everyone around it by about 4%.”  It would thus take about 25 journalists with hotspots in the audience to make Wi-Fi of any kind completely unusable for everyone.  Steve Jobs discovered in one of his very few demo fails when he introduced the iPhone 4.  Despite multiple please and angry threats for the journalists in the audience to turn off their hot spots, he could never quite get the Internet to work.

Now about that $200 Wi-Fi fee.  Some years ago, one of my projects involved setting up Wi-Fi for schools to use in the classroom.  The requirement called for each students to have their own iPad in multiple classrooms close together.  I quickly discovered that the expensive Cisco routers we had were not up to the task of streaming content to 90 students in the same building.  A single router could only handle a few dozen connections before everyone’s Internet quality became unreliable.  Wi-Fi hardware is not magic and the laws of physics dictate how many wireless connections are possible in a particular space.  Supporting hundreds of journalists requires renting expensive high-end equipment for a single, short event.  If we assume that there were 200 journalists in the audience, and half of them needed a hotspot, then $20,000 seems like a reasonable price to pay to rent and configure high-volume, reliable Internet for a presidential debate.