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FCC Takes Aim at Convention Center WiFi With Marriott Fine

By / Oct 6, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The Federal Communications Commission handed out a $600,000 fine against the hotel giant over the use of wireless-blocking devices at its Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Marriott officials defended the practice as “lawful.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a statement from the technology services provider Allot Communications.

Last year, a conference attendee found that his mobile hot spot—a device, such as MiFi or FreedomPop, that provides a wireless connection to the internet—wasn’t working at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

This meant the guest had to sign on using the convention center’s wireless, which, depending on the type of customer and the service used, can cost between $250 and $1,000 at the facility. (Free internet access is provided both in rooms and in the convention center, but at speeds that would be too slow for, say, an exhibitor.)

The attendee later filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, alleging that the facility was “jamming mobile hotspots so that you can’t use them in the convention space” and suggesting that this had happened at another Gaylord facility in the past.

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.

The FCC didn’t take that complaint lightly. In a move that might be seen as a shot fired across the convention industry, the FCC Enforcement Bureau issued a $600,000 fine to the operator of the Gaylord, Marriott International. In an order issued Friday [PDF], the agency found that Marriott had violated Section 333 of the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the use of devices that “willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications.”

“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,” Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said in a statement.

On top of the fine, the company will be required to improve how it monitors and uses its WiFi technology at the Nashville facility, stop its properties from using so-called jamming technology in an illegal manner, and document any use of “access point containment features” at any of its U.S. facilities. The company, which has more than 4,000 properties in 78 countries, will be required to file quarterly compliance reports for the next three years.

According to Gigaom, the Gaylord Opryland was apparently using Allot NetEnforcer to manage its wireless service, which allowed it and other Gaylord properties to create as many as 40 different service plans for just one event and manage network usage during events. According to a spokesperson for Allot Communications, the NetEnforcer tool does not itself disable WiFi networks.

In a statement, Marriott said it used the WiFi-jamming technology to protect visitors from “rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks, and identity theft.” The company added that other facilities, such as hospitals and universities, use such devices (which it characterizes as “provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers”) for similar reasons.

“We believe that the Gaylord Opryland’s actions were lawful,” the company said in the statement. “We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rulemaking in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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