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FCC Spanks Marriott for Blocking WiFi

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has chastised Marriott and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) for its August 2014 petition seeking the FCC’s permission to block guests’ use of outside WiFi networks at Marriott properties. The petition specifically mentions that Wi-Fi blocking at meetings and conventions—where WiFi is rarely offered for free by the hotel chain—would be required to protect network quality and improve security.

Spurred on by opposition from Google and Microsoft and a firestorm of negative comments on both the petition and social media, the FCC is citing Section 333 of the Communications Act (which prohibits willful interference with WiFi hotspots) and officially referring to this activity as illegal.

 

Marriott's petition to block outside WiFi access at its properties has been deemed illegal by the FCC.
Marriott’s petition to block outside WiFi access at its properties has been deemed illegal by the FCC.

Marriott and the FCC have tangled on this issue before. After Marriott jammed outside WiFi networks at a convention held at one of its Nashville properties in 2013—forcing some attendees to pay as much as $1,000 apiece for Internet access—the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau slapped the hotel chain with a $600,000 fine.

The Enforcement Bureau promises to address any future, similar cases with equal severity, which should put other hotel chains—like Hilton Worldwide, which supported Marriott’s and the AHLA’s petition—on notice.

To me, Marriott’s petition seems a clear attempt to appear concerned for its guests’ Internet speed and security while holding tight to the extensive revenue it collects from its high-volume WiFi charges at meetings and conventions. While seven Marriott brands now offer free in-room and public-area WiFi, and at most properties, complimentary in-room Internet access is extended to all Marriott Rewards members, the hotel chain may have been using its petition to establish a precedent for controlling WiFi access in its guest rooms and lobbies, as well.

I applaud the FCC's efforts to block hotels—and other commercial entities—from interfering with WiFi hotspots.
I applaud the FCC’s efforts to block hotels—and other commercial entities—from interfering with WiFi hotspots.

The Enforcement Bureau encourages all hotel guests, regardless of the brand, to contact the FCC if they believe their WiFi hotspots are being blocked. I applaud the FCC’s actions, and suggest two ways to retain your access to free WiFi at hotels:

1) Ask the front desk—it never hurts! As a consumer, it’s my rule of thumb to always ask politely for what I want from a business where I’ve already spent money. (Note that this tactic can work just as well for room and flight upgrades as for free WiFi.)

2) Tether your phone. The ability to share a smartphone’s Internet connection with computers or other devices, tethering can be accomplished by connecting devices with a USB cable, a Bluetooth wireless link or a WiFi connection. Once I’m tethered, my Verizon service is pretty fast—I even use it in airline lounges when WiFi is slow, and I can usually download a single-gigabyte TV show in under 10 minutes.

What are your favorite hotel brands—and technology hacks—for accessing free WiFi?

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