German cable operator Unitymedia is not allowed to transform the internet routers of its customers into Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to other customers without explicit customer approval, according to a ruling by the district court of Cologne.
With its decision, the court shares the opinion of consumer protection organisation Verbraucherzentrale NRW which initiated the legal proceedings.
Last year, Unitymedia informed its customers by mail that, with the WifiSpot, an additional Wi-Fi signal would be automatically activated on their router. Through this service, the company wanted to create a dense hotspot network enabling its customers free-of-charge mobile internet access outside the reach of their Wi-Fi home network.
The consumer protectors welcome the provision of public hotspots for Unitymedia customers, but argue that Unitymedia had not been allowed to unilaterally fire up a second hotspot for the creation of a third-party Wi-Fi network through the customers’ routes as this was not part of the original contracts with its customers. The company should have asked its customers for consent beforehand.
This opinion was shared by the judges. They prohibited Unitymedia from activating the separate Wi-Fi signal without approval by the customers.
In a statement, Unitymedia stressed that the court ruling is not yet legally binding, adding that the decision therefore had no impact on the usage of the WifiSpots for the time being. Registered customers would still be able to surf the net through the WifiSpots. Nevertheless, Unitymedia currently evaluates its options for further proceedings.
“The procedure and technology chosen by us ensures that there aren’t any disadvantages for customers through the activation of the WifiSpots,” said a Unitymedia spokesman. The WifiSpot signal was completely separate from the customer’s Wi-Fi signal with the capacity for data traffic going through the WifiSpot being provided in addition to the capacity part of the customer contract. The customer’s internet usage through its Wi-Fi signal would also always have priority against third-party WifiSpot usage.
“We have always left it up to our customers whether they want to participate in the WifiSpot service or not. There has always been and still is the possibility for each customer to temporarily or constantly deactivate the WifiSpot on the Unitymedia device being used,” said the spokesman. “The deactivation is possible online through the customer centre or through a free-of-charge call to our service hotline.”
Unitymedia’s UPC-branded sister companies in Switzerland and Austria as well as other European cable subsidiaries of Liberty Global such as Ziggo in the Netherlands have been offering ‘free’ Wi-Fi networks to their customers under the same voluntary opt-out scheme for several years.
German cable operator Kabel Deutschland (now Vodafone) introduced a co-surfing feature through its homespot service in November 2013. Tele Columbus and Primacom set up a community Wi-Fi network based on shared access of their customers’ routers in March 2016.