Skift Take

Marriott's customers resoundingly told the chain not to mess with their personal Wi-Fi devices and Marriott had little choice but to concede this battle. Other chains will likely feel the heat, as well. Still the war isn't over and the FCC will ultimately have much to say about where all of this is headed.

Facing a firestorm of criticism from frequent guests as well as Google, Microsoft and the news media, Marriott International has backtracked in its bid to block consumers’ personal Wi-Fi devices during conferences at properties that it manages, but the chain and the entire U.S. hotel industry still have plenty of wiggle room.

Marriott issued a difficult-to-decipher statement yesterday indicating it won’t block guests’ personal Wi-Fi devices, but added that the hotel company still seeks clarification from the FCC on the issue when it comes to network security.

“Marriott International listens to its customers, and we will not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of our managed hotels,” the statement reads. “Marriott remains committed to protecting the security of Wi-Fi access in meeting and conference areas at our hotels. We will continue to look to the FCC to clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data, and will continue to work with the industry and others to find appropriate market solutions that do not involve the blocking of Wi-Fi devices.”

Translation Please

Here’s the translation: Marriott vows not to block conference attendees’ personal Wi-Fi devices for network quality reasons when Marriott or third parties provide Wi-Fi to support conferences at properties that it manages.

However, Marriott has not withdrawn a petition it made to the FCC in partnership with the American Hotel & Lodging Association and Ryman Hospitality Properties seeking clarification about the issue and avidly seeks FCC recommendations on what it and the rest of the U.S. hotel industry should do to safeguard Wi-Fi network security at conferences.

For now, Marriott plans on merely monitoring Wi-Fi networks at conferences for cyber threats, and wouldn’t intervene other than to shut down the networks and inform law enforcement.

In the future, however, if the FCC rules that the law allows hotels or other parties to contain cyber threats by blocking an imposter service, for example, or taking other steps then Marriott would follow the FCC’s lead about permissible actions. There is no telling at this juncture what types of blocking actions the FCC would permit, if any, and this theoretically leaves open the possibility that wider blocking actions could occur.

Marriott has confronted a backlash from some of its most loyal guests about the issue of the chain potentially blocking personal Wi-Fi devices at conferences, and Marriott now intends to err on the side of doing anything it can to enable guests to connect with Wi-Fi networks of their choosing.

Still, Marriott has not withdrawn its FCC petition, and that leaves open the possibility in the future that Marriott could change its stance and performing blocking actions in some form in the name of cyber security if the FCC recommends such measures.

The Hotel Industry Hasn’t Followed Marriott’s Lead

“Today, Marriott has been the face of the issue but this is an issue and practice that other hotel companies are dealing with too,” Harvey Kellman, Marriott Internatiional’s assistant general counsel, tells Skift.

In fact, Marriott filed the FCC petition in partnership with the AH&LA, which is the main U.S. hotel industry trade group, and Hilton Worldwide endorsed the petition. Unlike Marriott, the AH&LA has been silent on whether its members intend to block hotel guests’ and conference attendees’ personal Wi-Fi, and the petition that seeks clarification about these issues from the FCC remains in effect and Marriott is still one of the petitioners despite the chain’s new stance.

The AH&LA and its law firm didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Our withdrawing the petition wouldn’t change anything,” says Marriott International spokesperson Thomas Marder, referring to Marriott’s involvement in the FCC petition.

Saying that Marriott has listened to its customers on the Wi-Fi issue, Marden adds that “what is more important today is that our customer can carry any Wi-Fi device in any part of the hotel and can access the Internet without any interference from us.”

“Basically with our statement we’ve said we’re not going to block Wi-Fi signals,” Marden says. “We are still interested in the FCC clarifying what’s appropriate in terms of providing network security in conference areas. The FCC petition is ongoing (we’re not the only petitioner). But we’re also going to work with our industry to look to develop other means to achieve security without blocking Wi-Fi signals.”

Second Statement in Two Weeks

Marriott’s January 14 statement was the chain’s second statement on the issue in the last two weeks. The earlier statement, issued December 30, argued that the chain’s customers were misunderstanding Marriott’s intent. Marriott stated that it never sought to block bring-your-own Wi-Fi devices in guest rooms or lobbies, but just at conferences where issues of sanctioned Wi-Fi quality and security come into play.

Several Marriott customers and others commented to the FCC that they thought Marriott was seeking to block guests’ access to their own personal hotspots so Marriott could force them to pay for Marriott Wi-Fi. Many commenters chided Marriott on the quality of its Wi-Fi, arguing that they need to bring their own for both business and personal reasons.

The FCC fined Marriott $600,000 several months ago for blocking such personal hotspots at a conference in Nashville last year and in August 2014 the chain joined the American Hotel & Lodging Association and Ryman Hospitality Properties in filing a petition [embedded below] with the FCC seeking clarification on what practices would be permissible to block attendees’ independent Wi-Fi access for network quality and security reasons.

Public comments to the FCC on the issue in December went virtually unanimously against allowing Marriott and other hotels to block guests’ access to their personal Wi-Fi devices.

In the interim, Skift published an open letter to the U.S. hotel industry arguing that Marriott and its peers should drop efforts to block guests’ and conference attendees’ independent Wi-Fi access because it would be a no-win proposition.

The New York Times published a Sunday editorial opposing Wi-Fi jamming by Marriott.

Google and Microsoft, too, filed comments with the FCC opposing hotel industry jamming practices.

What’s Next?

For the time being, at least, Marriott will communicate its new position to meetings’ planners, informing them that Wi-Fi network quality may be adversely impacted at large conferences because of Marriott’s decision to forego jamming attendees’ bring-your-own Wi-Fi devices. Marriott intends to work with the industry on potential workarounds.

The rest of the hotel industry will be undoutbtedly be solicited and heard over the next few weeks on whether they, like Marriott, pledge to avoid jamming guests’ and conference attendees’ personal Wi-Fi devices solely for network quality reasons.

The ball now is largely in the FCC’s court on how it will rule on the issues raised in the hotel industry petition: Is Wi-Fi jamming, and in what form, if any, permissible out of network quality and/or cyber security concerns?

Hotel guests have largely already indicated loud and clear where they stand.

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Tags: amenities, marriott, wi-fi

Photo credit: Whether it is in a lobby bar, guest room or conference area, hotel guests and meetings' attendees are adamant about maintaining access to their personal Wi-Fi devices. Marriott Hotels & Resorts

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