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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why WiFi Cost $200 at the Presidential Debate

WiFi isn't magic and providing reliable Internet access to a large group of journalists is expensive.

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 WiFi at the event. Many people were outraged by this, and FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued a statement:

My office has asked the @FCC Enforcement Bureau to investigate, figure out what happened. cc: @cfarivar

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) September 27, 2016

Something not right with the #WiFi situation at @HofstraU last night. Here’s what #FCC precedent says:

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) September 27, 2016

This would not be the first time the FCC has punished service providers for interfering with WiFi. 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 WiFi 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 composed of journalists and, without any restrictions, dozens of them could be expected to be operating hotspots.

Wi-Fi hardware is not magic and the laws of physics dictate how many wireless connections are possible in a particular space.

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 WiFi of any kind completely unusable for everyone. Steve Jobs discovered this in one of his very few demo fails when he introduced the iPhone 4. Despite multiple pleas 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 WiFi 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 student 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.

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  • David Veksler is the former Director of Technology at the Foundation for Economic Education and CTO of Royalty Exchange.