The U.S. Federal Communications Commission forcefully came down on the “disturbing trend” of hotels and other commercial entities blocking consumers’ personal Wi-Fi hot spots and declared such practices “illegal.”
The enforcement advisory directly rebuffs efforts by Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide and the rest of the U.S. hotel industry to get the authority to block attendees’ personal Wi-Fi hotspots at meetings and conventions.
Although the FCC hasn’t directly ruled on the Marriott and American Hotel & Lodging Association petition, filed in August, to seek clarification of the law as it pertains to Wi-Fi blocking, the FCC did note: “While the Enforcement Bureau recognizes that the Petition questions our position, the Bureau will continue to enforce the law as it understands it unless and until the Commission determines otherwise.”
FCC Calls Wi-Fi Blocking Illegal
“Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal,” the FCC states. “Wi-Fi blocking violates Section 333 of the Communications Act, as amended. The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference.”
And FCC chairman Tom Wheeler did comment directly about Marriott: “Consumers must get what they pay for. The Communications Act prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi. Marriott’s request seeking the FCC’s blessing to block guests’ use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle. Protecting consumers from this kind of interference is a priority area for the FCC Enforcement Bureau. The Enforcement Bureau recently imposed a $600,000 fine on Marriott for this kind of conduct, and the FCC will continue to enforce the Communications Act if others act similarly.”
The Marriott fine related to its blocking Wi-Fi at a convention at one of its Nashville properties in 2013.
Wi-Fi Blocking Isn’t Just A Marriott Issue
The FCC states it is investigating additional incidences of network operators allegedly blocking consumers’ access to Wi-Fi through their personal hotspots.
“No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi‑Fi network,” The FCC states. “Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.”
The FCC Enforcement Bureau’s warning today that “Wi-Fi blocking is prohibited” speaks to how important it feels the issue is as it comes even before a ruling on the petition by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Marriott International and Ryman Properties, with support from Hilton Worldwide, to get clarification on the law.
The petitions contended that Wi-Fi blocking at meetings and conventions — not in guest rooms — would be necessary to protect network quality and to enhance security.
The petition created a firestorm among the public and Marriott guests. During a comment period, virtually every comment about the petition submitted to the FCC opposed hotels’ efforts to block personal hotspots.
Marriott guests argued that the quality of hotel-provided Wi-Fi is often shoddy, and that guests require bring-your-own Wi-Fi to remotely operate their businesses and for personal reasons.
Skift published an open letter to the hotel industry arguing that Wi-Fi blocking by hotels is a no-win proposition.
Google and Microsoft filed objections to the move by Marriott and the rest of the hotel industry, and The New York Times published a Sunday editorial blasting the attempts to block guests’ Wi-Fi.
Marriott bowed to the pressure, saying it wouldn’t blocks guests’ personal Wi-Fi hotspots, but it left a lot of wiggle room because the joint Marriott and American Hotel & Lodging Association petition remains active.
Asked about the FCC advisory today, Marriott spokesperson Thomas Marder said: “As we said on January 14, we won’t block Wi-Fi at any of our hotels for any reason. We’re looking for the FCC to provide guidance on what hotels and others should do to protect Wi-Fi security at meetings.”