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FCC Warns Hotels: Don't Block Wireless Hot Spots

By / Jan 28, 2015 (Hemera/Thinkstock)

In an enforcement advisory released Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission issued a strong reminder that the blocking of wireless signals at hotels—or anywhere else—is “prohibited.” Meanwhile, an FCC commissioner has recommended that the agency reject a petition asking for clarity on the issue.

The Federal Communications Commission hasn’t yet responded to a petition, led by the hotel chain Marriott, regarding third-party wireless hotspots, but on this issue, the tide seems to be turning against the hotel industry.

On Tuesday, the FCC released an enforcement advisory that warns hotels, conference centers, and other facilities that they face potential fines and reprimands for blocking external hotspots in favor of their own offerings.

“No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal WiFi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s WiFi network,” the document states. “Such action is illegal, and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.”

The statement comes a few months after the FCC fined Marriott $600,000 for blocking wireless hotspots at its Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville. The advisory notes that, since then, the commission has heard of similar cases involving other facilities—suggesting that the problem may go deeper than first thought.

Petition Support Weak

Meanwhile, the petition asking for additional clarity about hotspots—filed by Marriott, Ryman Hospitality Properties, and the American Hospitality & Lodging Association—is still pending. While Marriott said it would no longer block external hotspots in response to customer feedback, the hotel chain still wants the FCC to allow a limited amount of interference in the interests of network security.

It seems unlikely that the petition will stand a chance with the commission: At least two commissioners are on record as leaning against it, including FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

In comments on the petition, Wheeler said Marriott’s request runs counter to the spirit of the Communications Act of 1934, which includes language intended to prevent tampering with wireless signals.

“The Communications Act prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications, including WiFi,” Wheeler said in a statement on Tuesday. “Marriott’s request seeking the FCC’s blessing to block guests’ use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle. Protecting consumers from this kind of interference is a priority area for the FCC Enforcement Bureau.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, meanwhile, said the petition is a “bad idea.”

“So let’s not let this petition linger or create any uncertainty,” she said at the State of the Net conference on Tuesday, according to the National Journal. “I hope my colleagues at the FCC will work with me to dismiss this petition without delay.”

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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