Marriott International has been ordered to pay a $600,000 fine to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after the hotel chain admitted that some of its employees in a Nashville hotel illegally blocked private WiFi signals and customer hotspots so that guests and conference attendees would have to pay to use the hotel's WiFi services.
The incident occurred in March 2013 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn., according to the FCC, when an attendee at a conference being held in the facility found that a mobile hotspot wasn't accessible for use because it had been disabled by the hotel's workers.
"The complainant alleged that the Gaylord Opryland was 'jamming mobile hotspots so that you can't use them in the convention space,'" the FCC said in an Oct. 3 statement about its action and fine against Marriott International and its subsidiary, Marriott Hotel Services. "After conducting an investigation, the [FCC] Enforcement Bureau found that employees of Marriott, which has managed the day-to-day operations of the Gaylord Opryland since 2012, had used features of a WiFi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to contain and/or de-authenticate guest-created WiFi hotspot access points in the conference facilities."
The complainant, whose name was not revealed by the FCC, reported that similar WiFi blocking had occurred previously at a different Gaylord property, according to the FCC. "And we complained, gave them the router name and they unblocked [it at that location]," the complainant reported. "Now working in the property in Nashville and you can get a few minutes in the [morning] then they jam you. Won't work in the ballrooms."
The private WiFi services were disabled in some cases when Marriott employees "sent de-authentication packets to the targeted access points, which would dissociate consumers' devices from their own WiFi hotspot access points and, thus, disrupt consumers' current WiFi transmissions and prevent future transmissions," the FCC stated. "At the same time that these employees engaged in these practices, Marriott charged conference exhibitors and other attendees anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per device to use the Gaylord WiFi service in the conference facilities."
As part of the settlement of the charges, Marriott has entered into a consent decree with the FCC, which stipulates that the hotel chain will develop a compliance plan and improve how it monitors and uses WiFi systems at the Gaylord Opryland, the FCC reported.
The company will have to conduct such monitoring for three years to ensure that no such violations again occur in its facilities, according to the decree. Reports will have to be made to the FCC periodically describing how the changes are being implemented.
Blocking of such signals is a violation of Section 333 of the U.S. Communications Act, according to the FCC. Section 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 Act or operated by the United States Government." That interference includes any kind of jamming or other interference with such signals.
"Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center," Travis LeBlanc, the enforcement bureau chief for the FCC, said in a statement. "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 WiFi network. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether."
Under the consent decree, Marriott admitted that one or more of its employees was involved in blocking the WiFi systems in the hotel, according to the FCC. "Such employees had used this capability to prevent users from connecting to the Internet via 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 FCC said. "Subsequent to learning of the bureau's investigation, Marriott instructed the properties under its management or control not to use this containment capability in the manner it had been used at the Gaylord Opryland."
Marriott did not immediately respond to an email inquiry from eWEEK on Oct. 6 seeking comment on the matter.