Marriott Wants to Block its Guests' Personal Wi-Fi Hot Spots, and Opposition Heats Up

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By Lydia Beyoud

Jan. 6 — Major trade groups, technology companies and public interest groups criticized a petition by Marriott International, Inc. and other hotel groups asking the Federal Communications Commission to let them block conference guests' personal Wi-Fi hot spots, according to several filings posted Jan. 6.

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) at New America Foundation and Public Knowledge likened granting the hotel groups' petition as authorizing “trigger-happy vigilantes to engage in wide-area jamming at will.”

Microsoft Corp. said the petitioners were engaging in feats of “logical contortionism”. Hotel groups shouldn't be able to claim that individual Wi-Fi hot spots should be subject to licensing requirements under Section 307 of the Communications Act of 1934 if they are found to be Part 15 radio devices for purposes of Section 333.

In its Aug. 25 petition, Marriott, Ryman Hospitality Properties and the American Hospitality and Lodging Association asked the FCC to allow them to block hotel conference attendees' and guests' personal Wi-Fi signals in order to properly manage hotel networks.

The petitioners specifically asked the FCC for a declaratory ruling (Docket No. RM-11737) that such action wouldn't violate 47 U.S.C. Section 333 on willful or malicious interference of radio signals. Alternatively, the groups asked the FCC to commence a rulemaking procedure on the issue.

The FCC fined the hotel group $600,000 on Oct. 3 for precisely such behavior at a 2013 conference in Tennessee. After jamming conference participants' Wi-Fi signals, the hotel was able to charge consumers, small businesses and exhibitors as much as $1,000 per device to connect to the hotel's network, the FCC said.

In a Dec. 30 corporate blog post, Marriott sought to address some of the concerns its petition had raised, and said it needed the regulatory clarity to address security concerns.

“The question at hand is what measures a network operator can take to detect and contain rogue and imposter Wi-Fi hot spots used in our meeting and conference spaces that pose a security threat to meeting or conference attendees or cause interference to the conference guest wireless network,” Marriott said. The request to block Wi-Fi signals doesn't extend to hotel room or lobby spaces, it said.

The Consumer Electronics Association said the ability of consumers and businesses to communicate and conduct their affairs using Wi-Fi data connections “should not depend on whether individuals have ownership rights in locations in which they live, work or visit.”

End users hold the right to operate Wi-Fi devices, the trade group said, adding that third-party disruptions of that right should be considered unlawful and contrary to the public interest.

“Network management and security practices are critical, but should be limited to an operator's own system, not the Wi-Fi systems of other service providers,” CEA said.

Alternative, ‘Permissible’ Cyberdefense 

Public interest groups OTI and Public Knowledge said in a joint filing that hotel operators have alternative, permissible ways to combat cybersecurity threats and criminal activities, rather than engaging in “vigilantism.”

They added that “in the more than 85 years since Congress passed the Federal Radio Act, the Commission has never authorized a private party to deliberately interfere with the communications of others,” and that doing so would undermine the stability of wireless infrastructure.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association said there is no need for a ruling or rulemaking on the issue, as the Communications Act, its legislative history and FCC rules “all make clear that Section 333 protects unlicensed operations.” NCTA added that the FCC's enforcement action in October against Marriott made this position “abundantly clear.”

The trade group's filing noted that the primary supporters of the petition are hotel interests and three companies that sell the equipment used for this purpose, and thus “stand apart from the consensus of the wireless broadband community.”

Scope ‘Narrowly Tailored.’

Among the groups that have supported the petition are Cisco Systems, Inc., which manufacturers Wi-Fi jammers, the USTelecom Association and the Enterprise Wireless Alliance, the petitioners noted in a Jan. 5 reply comment filing.

In it, Marriott said the issue affects not only the hospitality industry “but every Wi-Fi network operator, which underscores the need for uniform standards applicable to all Wi-Fi networks.”

Petitioners rejected the argument that hotels are trying to force guests to purchase hotel-run Wi-Fi service, and said the scope of their petition was narrowly tailored.

Individuals using their mobile devices to set up Wi-Fi hot spots would represent minimal threat to wireless security; rather, deauthentication—or wireless signal jamming—would typically be used to address efforts by an individual or company setting up a Wi-Fi service on a hotel's private property that is offered to other guests “and that jeopardizes the reliability or security of the hotel's Wi-Fi service.”

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

Petitioners' reply comment filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001011981.

Text of CEA's filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001011983.

Text of Microsoft's filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001011991.

Text of NCTA's filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001011985.

Text of OTI/Public Knowledge's filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001012007.