Marriott International has told eWEEK that the company has decided to drop its petition for rulemaking that would allow the hotel chain to block personal WiFi hotspots in conference and meeting facilities.
“Marriott International has decided to withdraw as a party to the petition seeking direction from the [Federal Communications Commission] on legal WiFi security measures,” Bruce Hoffmeister, global CIO for Marriott, said in a statement provided to eWEEK.
Marriott was fined for blocking WiFi hotspots at one of its properties in 2014. The blocking took place in conference areas and not in guest rooms. In January 2015, Marriott said that it would not block guest access to WiFi.
Hoffmeister reiterated that stance in the Jan. 30 statement provided to eWEEK. “As we have said, we will not block WiFi signals at any hotel we manage for any reason.”
While the Marriott statement focuses on security, the company and the FCC were flooded with complaints that the real reason was so that Marriott could charge for WiFi use in its meeting facilities, which can cost as much as $1,000 per access point.
However, Marriot never admitted that was the reason it blocked WiFi signals. “Our intent was to protect personal data in WiFi hotspots for large conferences. We thought we were doing the right thing asking the FCC to provide guidance, but the FCC has indicated its opposition.”
Hoffmeister said Marriott remains concerned about the security of its customers’ communications. “We’re doing everything we can to promote our customers’ connectivity using mobile and other devices, and we’re working with the industry to find security solutions that do not involve blocking our guests’ use of their WiFi devices.”
This all started when Marriott started interfering with customers’ abilities to access their personal hot spots in the conference center at one of the company’s hotels. As you might expect, some of Marriott’s customers objected and they went to the FCC with their complaints.
The FCC found that the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn., was in violation of the laws that bar intentional interference and slapped a $600,000 fine on the hotel. Marriott paid the fine, but it filed a petition with the FCC asking that it be allowed to continue the practice of blocking WiFi.
The petition by Marriott and the American Hotel and Lodging Association was filed in August 2014, but flew beneath the radar until the FCC announced that Marriott had settled in October.
Other groups, including Hilton Hotels, joined Marriott. Since that happened, a firestorm of customer complaints was directed against Marriott, which in mid-January, cried uncle. “Marriott International listens to its customers, and we will not block guests from using their personal WiFi devices at any of our managed hotels,” the company said in a press release.
Now that Marriott has dropped its petition, presumably the AHLA will do the same, but at this point, the organization has not publicly stated its intentions.
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.”
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.
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.