FCC Warns Hotels Not to Block Wi-Fi

The agency wants to put a stop to a “disturbing trend.”

Marriott Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles
National Journal
Jan. 27, 2015, 11:35 a.m.

It is il­leg­al for any busi­ness to block per­son­al Wi-Fi net­works, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion warned Tues­day.

In a pub­lic ad­vis­ory, the FCC said it is “ag­gress­ively in­vest­ig­at­ing and act­ing” against busi­nesses that il­leg­ally in­ter­fere with Wi-Fi. The agency’s En­force­ment Bur­eau said it has no­ticed a “dis­turb­ing trend” in which ho­tels and oth­er busi­nesses block per­son­al Wi-Fi hot spots.

Last year, the FCC fined Mar­ri­ott ho­tels $600,000 for dis­abling Wi-Fi hot spots. If guests wanted In­ter­net ac­cess, they had to pay up to $1,000 to use Mar­ri­ott’s wire­less net­work.

But Mar­ri­ott and oth­er hotel ad­vocacy groups filed a pe­ti­tion with the FCC, ask­ing it to de­clare that ho­tels can block Wi-Fi net­works as long it’s ne­ces­sary for se­cur­ity pur­poses. Per­son­al Wi-Fi hot spots can in­ter­fere with the hotel’s net­work and cus­tom­ers can ex­pose per­son­al in­form­a­tion by ac­ci­dent­ally log­ging on to the wrong net­work, the ho­tels claimed.

The FCC hasn’t of­fi­cially ruled on Mar­ri­ott’s pe­ti­tion yet. But it’s clear which way the com­mis­sion is head­ing.

“Con­sumers must get what they pay for,” FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er said in a state­ment. “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.”

He vowed that the FCC will fine any oth­er hotel that tries to in­ter­fere with its guests’ Wi-Fi net­works even while the Mar­ri­ott pe­ti­tion is pending.

Also on Tues­day, Demo­crat­ic FCC Com­mis­sion­er Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel said she wants to re­ject the pe­ti­tion, call­ing Wi-Fi block­ing a “bad idea.”

“So let’s not let this pe­ti­tion linger or cre­ate any un­cer­tainty. I hope my col­leagues at the FCC will work with me to dis­miss this pe­ti­tion without delay,” she said in a speech at the State of the Net con­fer­ence.

There are five FCC com­mis­sion­ers, and three must vote to take any ac­tion on an is­sue.

Google and Mi­crosoft have also filed com­ments with the FCC ask­ing it to re­ject the Mar­ri­ott pe­ti­tion.

Ros­anna Maietta, a spokes­wo­man for the Amer­ic­an Hotel & Lodging As­so­ci­ation, which joined Mar­ri­ott in its fil­ing to the FCC, said the goal of the pe­ti­tion is “to clear up the con­fu­sion that ex­ists around the steps busi­nesses can take to pro­tect guest data from rogue op­er­at­ors or crim­in­als tar­get­ing the at­tendees at large events and meet­ings.”

“As an in­dustry we seek to ad­dress this chal­lenge while con­tinu­ing to provide ac­cess to se­cure Wi-Fi,” she said, adding that it is “in­cum­bent on policy makers to con­sider how their cur­rent rules may im­pact con­sumer safety and se­cur­ity.”

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