FCC to Marriott: You cannot force customers to use your hotel’s WiFi

October 10, 2014

On October 3, the FCC issued a release stating that the Marriott hotel services would be fined $600,000 to resolve the agency’s investigation into “whether the Marriott intentionally interfered with and disabled Wi-Fi networks established by consumers in the conference facilities of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee in violation of Section 333 of the Communications act.” The FCC’s investigation revealed that the Marriott employees prevented patrons at the Gaylord Opryland from connecting to their personal Wi-Fi networks, and charged conference exhibitors and attendees “as much as $1000 per device to access the Marriott’s Wi-Fi network.”
42 U.S.C. § 333 provides that “no person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this chapter or operated by the United States Government.” Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc indicated that, “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.”
Marriott issued its own statement in response to the allegations claiming that, “Marriott has a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft.”

It seems doubtful at best that Marriott’s conference attendees would be committing acts of cybercrime and identity theft simply because they are using a “rogue hotspot.”

The FCC seemed to agree, stating that the Marriott’s employees prevented users from connecting to their own “personal WiFi networks when these users did not pose a threat to the security of the Gaylord Opryland network or its guests.” The Marriott also stated that they believe the “Gaylord Opryland’s actions were lawful.” However, their employees’ actions seem to be directly in contradiction to §333.
Because the Marriott is complying with the FCC’s order, at least commenter argues that the FCC’s actions against Marriott, “leads to a lot of uncertainty for WLAN administrators and their ability to protect their networks.” For example, Badman worries that the lack of guidance from the FCC, an individual could bring a mobile hotspot into a hospital and disrupt wireless medical equipment, or “dozens of media reporters could show up with MiFis,” and disrupt a multimillion-dollar stadium’s WiFi. These scenarios would leave a WLAN administrator with no recourse. These situations are certainly plausible under the current guidance from the FCC, which seems only to indicate that consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use it without fear of being blocked by a conference center or hotel.
As a consumer, I am happy that my rights to use my cellular data plan are upheld, but I would also worry that the FCC did not limit its language in any way. The FCC should address some situations where a facility might need to have its WiFi under complete control- like in a hospital, or on an airplane. In those cases, an individual’s rights to their personal WiFi might be outweighed by the risks to others- like patients in a hospital counting on wireless equipment, or an airplane’s GPS systems and communication with air traffic control.