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I attend a university in the United States where the school policy states that "Students are not permitted to setup or use their own wireless networks." This includes personal hotspots that come with one's phone plan, bluetooth connections, etc. I had some concerns about this policy and wrote to the administration. In the end they agreed to meet with me and said they would work with me to change the outdated policy. So for me, it looks like all good news. That being said, I'm aware that there are many other universities out there with this same policy, and that have refused to change it. Can these universities legally enforce this policy? I'm leaning towards thinking that they would not be able to (I'll link some of the sources that gave me this impression below), but I'm curious to hear what others have to say, as this is starting to become a very prevalent issue, and I wouldn't be surprised to see cases in court in the coming years.

Sources/Arguments:

One of the reasons for this policy provided by the school was that other wireless networks could cause unwanted interference with their network. Ignoring the fact that almost all modern devices (and all wireless devices using the 5Ghz spectrum, per regulation) automatically detect which wireless channels are being used and will select unused ones, it would seem that per FCC regulations, the university must

"...accept any interference received, including interference that may cause undesired operation."

Note: the type of interference - if any - caused by students self-hosting their own wireless networks would not come near to the FCC's "harmful interference" definition.

Also check out the §15.5(b) explanation in this article:

"For unlicensed devices, which include Wi-Fi, the FCC has consistently interpreted this to mean that interference incidental to the operation of a properly functioning device is allowable. Someone using a properly operating hotspot in your vicinity has as much a right to operate their device as you do operating your device, even if the two systems cause problems with each other."

It would also appear that the university wouldn't have any more right towards use of the wireless spectrum than any student would, as consistently the FCC has shown that property rights have no relation to usage rights of the wireless spectrum.

"First, under the general requirements for operation, the consumer does not receive or possess a 'vested or recognizable right to continued use of any given frequency' on the basis of device certification or use. Being the owner of the device does not guarantee the consumer exclusive, continuous, or ongoing usage of that wireless device at a specific frequency. Although a consumer may operate an unlicensed wireless device for weeks, months, or years, this operation does not confer a first-in-time 'vested' right to continue to operate the device if another licensed or unlicensed device begins to operate at that frequency."

Finally, it looks like the only authority with the right to ask someone to stop a wireless transmission is the FCC itself:

"The operator of a radio frequency device shall be required to cease operating the device upon notification by a Commission representative that the device is causing harmful interference."

Update: After seeing this comment from gparyani, I got curious and searched through all of the official university policies I'd agreed to. As it turns out, despite the warning being plastered all over the university's website, and the website itself saying that it's the university's policy not to allow students to create their own wireless networks... it's not actually in any of the hundreds of pages of policy documents that I agreed to abide by upon enrolling here... I just figured I'd highlight this point for any future visitors to this post.

Update #2 I have accepted this answer as it seems to be correct, and after waiting a few months and prompting the authors of some of the other compelling answers to respond, there has yet to be a counter argument. If, however, a strong counter argument is made, or you think I’ve selected the wrong answer, let me know with a valid explanation, and I’ll change my selection. It should also be noted that this answer was provided long after the hype died down on this question, hence why it doesn’t have nearly as many views and votes.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dale M Feb 18 at 20:42
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    Your first point about wireless channels is sound only in small scale. Get everyone in a dorm with their own network and you will run out of free channels multiples times over. Even 100 apartments in my last complex was rough on the wifi. – Logarr Feb 18 at 20:57
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    Strictly speaking, wouldn't every iPhone user who is using wireless ear pods be in violation of this policy? – tbrookside Feb 19 at 18:12
  • "as consistently the FCC has shown that property rights have no relation to usage rights of the wireless spectrum." I was expecting this to mean that ownership of real property (i.e. land) has no relation, but what follows is a discussion of ownership of the device. Ownership of the land certainly has a relation to what the owner can permit on their land, although if someone were standing just outside the property line and using a device powerful enough to interfere with the university's network, they might not be able to prohibit that. – Acccumulation Feb 20 at 4:37
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    Why roll back the edit? They are quotes, they belong in quote boxes. You're expected to use the correct formatting on SE sites. – Clonkex Feb 24 at 0:19
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No They Can't

FCC Public Notice DA 04-1844 on "Rules Governing Customer Antennas And Other Unlicensed Equipment" addresses colleges and universities, and sounds to me like it is specifically about this issue.

The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) releases this Public Notice in response to questions from the public regarding the use of unlicensed devices, including customer antennas, especially in the context of a variety of multi-tenant environments (MTEs). MT environments encompass venues such as hotels, conference and convention centers, airports, and colleges and universities. In particular, questions have arisen about the role of the Commission in addressing and resolving radio interference (“RFI”) issues in these settings. In addition, questions have arisen about the ability of homeowners associations, landlords, and other third parties to prohibit customer use of small antennas when consumers install and operate them as unlicensed devices.

In response, we reaffirm that, under the Communications Act, the FCC has exclusive authority to resolve matters involving radio frequency interference [RFI] when unlicensed devices are being used, regardless of venue. We also affirm that the rights that consumers have under our rules to install and operate customer antennas one meter or less in size apply to the operation of unlicensed equipment, such as Wi-Fi access points - just as they do to the use of equipment in connection with fixed wireless services licensed by the FCC.

To address Dale's point, further down it forbids the use of property law to regulate these issues:

We also affirm that the consumer protections for the installation and use of consumer antennas under the FCC’s Over-the-Air Reception Devices (OTARD) rules apply to unlicensed devices. By their terms, these rules apply, among other things, to customer antennas - one-meter or less in size - used for transmitting and/or receiving any fixed wireless signal of any commercial nonbroadcast communications signal that is transmitted via wireless technology to or from a customer location. The rules prohibit homeowner associations, landlords, state and local governments, or any other third parties from placing restrictions that impair a customer antenna user's ability to install, maintain, or use such customer antennas transmitting and/or receiving commercial nonbroadcast communications signals when the antenna is located "on property within the exclusive use or control" of the user where the user has a direct or indirect ownership or leasehold interest in the property, except under certain exceptions for safety and historic preservation.

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  • Nice find! I suppose the legal question is then: does a typical university dorm contract & payment give that student "a direct or indirect ownership or leasehold interest in the property" as the FCC defines it? Curious that it does not explicitly list colleges/universities (or hotels/conference centers/airports) in the second ¶ you quoted. – Jacob Ford Feb 29 at 20:15
  • This is a great! I’d love to accept it as the correct answer, but first I want to check in with @DaleM and others who answered saying it could be legally enforced, and get their opinions now that we have this new information. So, what do you guys think? – Noah Mar 3 at 18:35
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Yes they can

You are approaching this from the wrong direction. Their right to enforce what you can and can't do doesn't come from radio-spectrum law; it comes from property and contract law.

You are on their property subject to a license that they give you to be there. One of the terms of that license is that you won't set up or operate a wireless network. No doubt there are other things you are not permitted to do; for example, you may not be able to sell goods and services. If you breach the terms of the license then you are trespassing and they are within their rights to have you removed.

In addition, if you are a student (or staff), this is probably one of the terms of your contract with the university. If you breach it, they can terminate your candidature (employment).

Contracts can impose obligations on you that goes beyond what the law obliges you to do. Indeed, there is no contract if it only requires what is already required.

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    The question contained a point that seemed to imply that "the FCC has shown that property rights have no relation to usage rights of the wireless spectrum.", wouldn't that mean the FCC's point would overrule the property rights, leaving only "terms of service" as a valid way to stop wireless networks? – jrh Feb 19 at 15:55
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    @jrh That only means the university doesn't have an exclusive right to use the frequencies. So, I could set up a base station six inches from school property, and as long as I'm not creating "harmful interference", they can't do jack about it. But move that base station six inches onto school property, then I'm trespassing and can be arrested. – HiddenWindshield Feb 19 at 23:30
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    @HiddenWindshield if you have nothing to do with them, sure - but if you're living in their dorms, then they probably could kick you out of the dorms for setting up a base station six inches outside the dorm territory. – Peteris Feb 20 at 10:07
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    @JoelCoehoorn That was about Marriott actively blocking wifi networks, not contractually requiring people to not set up networks. law.stackexchange.com/a/49170/28668 – nasch Feb 20 at 18:40
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    @nasch IIRC correctly, the specifics of the Marriott case were about actual jamming. To my knowledge the contractual part has not actually been litigated yet. However, IIRC FCC filings in the case indicated they also believe Marriott could not require this via contract, either. Again, not actually litigated, but insightful for those of us not wanted to deal with a federal fine. This was on the EDUCAUSE mailing a list a couple years back, not long after the rulings from the case were published. – Joel Coehoorn Feb 20 at 18:45
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They aren't allowed to jam your networks, per this Mariott case.

However, that doesn't prevent them from enforcing their contract terms and various "acceptable use policies" based on your relationship with the university. They'll be able to kick you out of the course if you don't follow the rules.

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  • They can legally enforce it. But in practice, they’ll find enforcement difficult if not impossible. Nevertheless, I recommend compliance. – WGroleau Feb 20 at 16:32
  • The Marriott case was different than university situations as Marriott was aggressively using rogue AP security tools to block all competing networks and selling an alternative service for access (at high cost and lower performance). The abuse for financial gain is generally considered the primary reason the FCC ruled against Marriott and fined them so heavily. Universities restricting their own users are almost always also providing free Internet access to those users already. – YLearn Mar 2 at 21:42
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The only avenue for a legally-enforceable restriction against running your own network on campus would be via the contract arising from enrollment at the school. If this is a government-operated school, this is not a long-run option (though it may take a lawsuit to sort that out). A private school has the right to impose all sorts of arbitrary restrictions on their customers, but government action (policies created by state schools) can't arbitrarily restrict the freedom of action of those subject to its jurisdiction. If this is a state school, they may try to argue that such networks interefere with the operation of the campus network, but that is a factually dubiuous claim. Still, if they could show that running a hot spot interferes with the school's operation, then they might prevail under an intermediate-scrutiny review.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dale M Feb 18 at 20:42
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    Can you, please, add a reference for the reasoning that a state school is legally an agent of the state rather than an independent organization receiving state subsidies? I assume that's why you make the distinction between state schools and private schools. – grovkin Feb 20 at 16:31
  • Generally, I would say, look at the statutes of the state in question, for example RCW Ch. 28B for Washington, ORC Ch. 3345 for Ohio and so on. – user6726 Feb 20 at 16:56
  • Could you elaborate on why the government can quite legally mandate that one cannot cause wireless interference (via the FCC), but cannot legally mandate that one cannot create a wireless network in a particular place? – Matthew Read Feb 20 at 22:43
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"Ignoring the fact that almost all modern devices (and all wireless devices using the 5Ghz spectrum, per regulation) automatically detect which wireless channels are being used and will select unused ones..."

Actually, if they're providing good coverage in halls, it's likely that they're saturating the channels, and therefore any network you put up could easily interfere with theirs. Premium hotel brands typically have a policy to put one Access Point per room, but the side effect is that an AP density this high suffers from both inter- and intra-channel interference; they manage this by dropping the RF power.

Source: Experience in hospitality WiFi installations.

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    IME, best coverage comes from "checkboarding", where you place an AP in every other room (or even every third room), alternating APs across the hallways and floors, to reduce things like roaming events and beacons. But the idea is similar. – Joel Coehoorn Feb 20 at 16:30
  • Argh, that should have been "checkerboarding". – Joel Coehoorn Mar 2 at 14:48
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I am not a lawyer, but I do run the IT department at a small college where this issue has come up a few times.

Our reading of the regulations (other institutions may read them differently) is I am not legally permitted to interfere with your wireless router. We don't own or have any exclusive rights over the spectrum on our campus. Public spectrum is public.

Additionally, aspects of the Marriott case indicate to us the FCC believes I'm not even allowed to prohibit this via our residence contracts, or if I do I can't really enforce it. It's not fully litigated and separate from the rulings of the case, but in the United States the FCC is claiming exclusive ability to regulate this, and when they say "public", they really mean it. Again, other institutions may read this differently.

However, I am permitted to do two things.

First, I am permitted to include language in our residence contracts which prohibits you from extending the networks we own and operate... that is, we can and do have this written in policy that you should not use the internet access provided to your room to run your own router or repeater.

Second, I can enforce this by disabling the network port, phone line, or coax line in your room needed to provide initial uplink service to your router. I can also block your router or repeater from connecting to our wifi to get initial service that way. In other words, I can't stop your router from functioning as the manufacturer intended, but I can starve it's ability to make an uplink connection.


Separate from the legal issues, I promise you we really are serious when we tell you these devices mess with everyone else and cause problems on our networks.

University residences tend to be very densely populated. We don't pack students in quite as much as a hotel might in terms of number of people per square foot, but it's close, and a much higher percentage of college students are heavy wireless users. It's not just your phone or laptop using the spectrum for internet. Game controllers, wireless mice, bluetooth speakers/earbuds, and more all share that same resource.

Our networks tend to be tuned to take best advantage of the available spectrum, where we make choices to support more simultaneous people rather than go for the highest individual speeds. For example, in the 2.4Ghz band we might only use 20mhz channels instead of 40mhz. This limits the max speed of each connection, but means we can support many more simultaneous devices. Another thing we might do in that band is limit to channels 1,6,and 11, because the channels overlap somewhat and only using those three avoids interference. Also, we'll tend to have more APs ("routers"), each one running at a much lower power level, so that there's less geographical overlap and each AP doesn't have as many end-user devices. A large campus may have thousands of APs (routers).

When you come along and start using your off-the-shelf router, it will do a scan and find, say, channel 4 seems unused. Then it will default to a 40mhz channel width with the extension on channel 8. So now, because the channels overlap, it's in contention with our devices across the entire 2.4Ghz spectrum. Additionally, instead of the 11db or 17db our APs might be using, to create smaller cells with fewer devices per cell, this will probably broadcast at the full permitted 29db, meaning this contention takes place over a much larger area.

All of those settings absolutely make sense in a home network, and are therefore the defaults in most off-the-shelf routers, but they are also exactly the wrong way to do things for college residence, and will lead to worse experiences for everyone.

Wireless contention issues aside, we've also had several cases where an incorrectly-connected router tried to take over DHCP duties in a building/vlan, thereby breaking internet access for many others until the culprit was tracked down and unplugged.

In short, internet access is not magic. It's based on real physical rules. These rules don't often matter much at home, but we are pushing the limits of what's possible when we come to these shared environments, such as a college residence. Bringing your own router into this situation is being a bad neighbor to your peers.


Going ever further afield of the initial legal question, I have a separate complaint about FCC policy in this area. Unlike public and unlicensed wifi spectrum, cell service spectrum is exclusively licensed. We see carriers like Verizon and AT&T are able to do amazing things with relatively small amounts of spectrum. The reason they are able to do this is they know they are the only thing using that spectrum. They can count on every device on those bands playing by the rules they set, with no signal interference.

But those are the only two modes the FCC seems to understand: fully-licensed and exclusive spectrum, or fully unlicensed and open spectrum. Given the importance of modern wifi, I'd really like to see a new category: unlicensed for a specific purpose.

The idea is to partner with the IEEE 802.11 working group to give over some spectrum (maybe something in the 3Ghz range) as unlicensed: anyone can use it, as long as the device follows the specific designated protocol to be designed by the 802.11 working group. This would be a new protocol which operates very similar to WiFi today, but now we can also assume certain kinds of interference just won't happen. We get to assume cooperation-by-default, instead of the opposite. Suddenly the wifi no longer needs to contend with noise from game controllers, bluetooth, mice, etc, and this should open up a whole new level of potential performance for basic internet.

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  • I'm not 100% knowledgeable with cellphone's way of working, but I have doubt about your claim that it's substantially better than ISM. I'd love to see some citations to support that. From where I sit, the utility of both is thanks to the same things; advent of software defined radio combined with good collision arbitration and multiplexing protocols. Cell's only real advantage is beam-forming, but that is slowly coming to WiFi too. Beam-forming is, admittedly, a pretty strong technique though. But then, I digress... a discussion for an EE site. – Charlie Feb 29 at 7:48

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