Marriott Drops Petition Asking the FCC to Allow WiFi Blocking
Marriott's WiFi blocking didn't sit well with the FCC at all. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler laid down the law: "Consumers must get what they pay for. The Communications Act prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications, including WiFi," Wheeler said in an emailed statement. "Marriott's request seeking the FCC's blessing to block guests' use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle." Wheeler went on to say that the FCC's findings apply to everyone in addition to Marriott. "The Enforcement Bureau recently imposed a $600,000 fine on Marriott for this kind of conduct, and the FCC will continue to enforce the Communications Act if others act similarly." Meanwhile, the FCC Enforcement Bureau expanded on Wheeler's comments, saying that it's trying to stop this sort of activity with a public notice of an enforcement advisory. "The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal WiFi hot spots on the commercial establishment's premises. As a result, the bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference." Other commissioners had also come out against the petition. At the FCC's State of the Net conference in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called WiFi blocking a "bad idea."Unfortunately, the way Marriott went about it made it seem pretty clear that what the company was really about was charging for WiFi. But just because Marriott can't get its messaging straight doesn't mean they don't have a point. So as Rosenworcel suggests, perhaps there's a better way to deal with the problem. In the filings by Hilton Hotels in support of Marriott, that hotel company talks about the fact that by preventing Marriott from blocking unwanted WiFi signals, the FCC was putting hotel operators in an "untenable" position. But is blocking signals the only way to ensure security? In the actions by Marriott that started the whole thing, the idea was to make users choose to employ the hotel's access point. But perhaps a better way to get them to choose would be to provide free, fast, secure business class WiFi communications that were better than you can get from a personal WiFi hotspot. After all, personal hotspots cost money to use, they can be pretty slow and if a better choice were available for free, the attraction for a personal hot spot would vanish. The hotel would be fulfilling its security responsibility and solving its problem. If what Marriott and others say is true, that this isn't about the money, but about guest security, the problem would be solved for everyone.
But was Marriott's WiFi blocking really a bad idea? The problem of online security for large groups of people using WiFi in large public spaces is very real. Large numbers of WiFi users signing on at the same time in a concentrated area provides an inviting opportunity for hackers who would like to set up bogus access points and then harvest private information.