Hotels Seek FCC Approval To Block WiFi Hotspots, Google And Microsoft Have Your Back

We’ve all encountered this issue. You check into your hotel room and attempt to connect to the complementary Wi-Fi network only to find that it’s slow as molasses, transporting you back to a time when a 56K modem was considered hot stuff. And even when you are forced to pay a daily “Resort Fee” to access Wi-Fi, download speeds typically aren’t much better and really bog down during evening hours.

Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee came under fire from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) back in October, when an investigation concluded that the resort was installing jamming equipment to block Wi-Fi signals of guests that were using site conference rooms. When hotel guests complained about not being able to using their Wi-Fi hotspots, the hotel offered up its own high-speed Internet services for $250 to $1,000.

Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center

The FCC wasn’t impressed, slapped Marriott with a $600,000 fine, and ordered the removal of the jamming devices.

Naturally, the American Hospitality and Lodging Association (AHLA) sided with Marriott and petitioned the FCC back in August to allow hotels to block personal Wi-Fi hotspots at their leisure. In the petition [PDF], the AHLA claims that future hotel blocking efforts wouldn’t “involve signal jammers, which transmit powerful radio signals that overpower, jam, or interfere with authorized communications,” as were used in Nashville.

Instead, the AHLA supports the use of “network management equipment” from Aruba Networks and Cisco. The AHLA contends that widespread use of Wi-Fi hotspots can interfere with its own [paid] Wi-Fi services, reducing available bandwidth and download speeds for its guests. The AHLA also says that personal hotspots could be used to hack its internal networks, leading to leaks of sensitive personal information.

Microsoft and Google, two companies that are usually at odds with one another, are actually in agreement that restricting Wi-Fi is not in the best interests of the public. For its part, Microsoft wrote [PDF] to the FCC:

A proprietary network operator taking actions in the name of improving its network’s reliability or performance could also leverage these actions to compete unfairly and harm consumers. For example, if a customer arrives at a hotel with her own Mi-Fi device and the hotel interferes with the customer’s connection to that personal hotspot, the hotel can effectively force the customer to purchase the hotel’s Wi-Fi services to gain access, even though the customer has already paid her mobile operator for personal hotspot capability.

Google also chimed in [PDF], stating that the FCC doesn’t even need to reopen this matter, as the Marriott decision should have shut the door on any future challenges:

While Google recognizes the importance of leaving operators flexibility to manage their own networks, this does not include intentionally blocking access to other Commission-authorized networks, particularly where the purpose or effect of that interference is to drive traffic to the interfering operator’s own network (often for a fee). Congress directed the Commission to prohibit such willful interference, and the Commission has consistently done so.

Indeed, the FCC was very clear when it handed down its stiff penalty back in October. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network,” said FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc at the time [PDF]. “This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”

As Google and Microsoft both indicate, the only thing that’s changing here is that hotels would no longer use “illegal” jammers to interfere with Wi-Fi communications. But the use of “legal” jammers still doesn’t get around the fact that customers would unable to use a service [without restriction] that they have paid for.