FCC Vows to Act Against Hotels That Block Guests' Personal Wi-Fi Devices

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By Lydia Beyoud

Jan. 27 — The FCC sent a strong warning to Marriott International Inc. and other hotels seeking to block hotel guests’ personal Wi-Fi hot spot devices.

The Federal Communications Commission will pursue any willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots, the agency’s Enforcement Bureau said in the form of a Jan. 27 enforcement advisory that declared: “WARNING: Wi-Fi blocking is prohibited.”

Marriott, Ryman Hospitality Properties and the American Hospitality and Lodging Association petitioned the FCC in August for the thumbs-up to block conference-goers’ Wi-Fi hot spots out of what they characterized as network security concerns. But consumer groups and most recently Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel described the petition as a maneuver aimed at forcing guests to purchase hotels' Wi-Fi signals.

“The Communications Act prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a news release accompanying the enforcement advisory.

“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,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s remarks came hours after Rosenworcel called on her fellow commissioners to dismiss the Marriott petition promptly.

“Let’s not let this petition linger or create any uncertainty,” Rosenworcel said at the annual State of the Net conference in Washington hosted by the Internet Education Foundation. “There are other ways to address legitimate network security concerns, but this is a bad idea.”

In a Jan. 14 corporate blog post, Marriott said it would not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices, but would continue to look to the FCC “to clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data.”

Marriott was fined $600,000 in 2014 for jamming guests' Wi-Fi signals.

Spectrum's ‘Outdated Accounting.'

At the State of the Net conference, Rosenworcel outlined two other priorities in expanding WiFi access and economic output. The first priority is to change the way unlicensed airwaves are accounted for by the Congressional Budget Office in order to incentivize lawmakers to pay greater attention to the economic possibilities in that space.

Congressional proposals focus too often on promoting auctions of licensed spectrum because such airwaves are easy to assign value to, said Rosenworcel, a former senior communications counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“Bills that direct the FCC to sell licensed spectrum at auction get high grades while legislation that creates more spectrum for Wi-Fi gets low marks,” she said. “I think that accounting method is outdated, because it fails to take into account the more than $140 billion in economic activity unlicensed spectrum creates each year.”

“Making small accounting changes could be the ticket to bigger Wi-Fi opportunities in the future,” Rosenworcel said.

Incentive Auctions

Rosenworcel also indicated her support for the FCC to hold to its current timeline of holding the broadcast incentive auctions in the 600 MHz block in 2016.

The auctions were initially set for mid-2015, but the FCC pushed its timeline back to mid-2016 at the earliest. The 600 MHz spectrum is prized by Wi-Fi providers because its frequencies are able to pass through walls with less attenuation, resulting in better in-building penetration.

Referring to unlicensed airwaves as “perfect sandboxes for experimentation,” Rosenworcel called on policy makers to release more spectrum for Wi-Fi and unlicensed activity generally, adding the FCC needs to “follow through and just do it” with regard to auctioning off broadcasters' spectrum for greater Wi-Fi use.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Read the enforcement advisory here: http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-9t6tgc.

Text of the Marriott blog post is at http://news.marriott.com/2015/01/marriott-international-will-not-block-wi-fi-devices.html.