What We Learned from the FCC’s WiFi-Blocking Saga

The recent move by the FCC to enforce a ban on wireless blocking devices is a big win for consumers—and offers an important reminder to event planners and facility owners that attendees have big expectations when it comes to their WiFi.

It’s one of those stories that’s kept eyebrows arched in the event space over the past few months.

The Federal Communications Commission’s scrutiny of the use of wireless-blocking devices at hotels and conference centers, among other facilities, reached a high point last week when the FCC’s enforcement arm warned that it would fine any facility actively blocking access to the wireless airwaves.

The saga was rooted in an incident at a Gaylord facility in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2013. A customer complained about a blocked hot spot, and the FCC fined Marriott $600,000, saying such blocking is illegal under federal law.

Marriott argues that there are valid security reasons for blocking third-party devices, and the company petitioned the FCC to reconsider the rules. Critics weren’t buying the claim and largely opposed the petition in submitted comments. Feeling backlash, Marriott publicly said a few weeks ago that it would no longer block wireless access at conference facilities but that it would continue pushing for clarity on the issue from the FCC.

We thought we were doing the right thing asking the FCC to provide guidance, but the FCC has indicated its opposition.

But last week, two of the FCC’s five commissioners—including chairman Tom Wheeler—strongly hinted they would vote to reject the petition, leading Marriott, Ryman Hospitality Properties, and the American Hospitality & Lodging Association (AH&LA) to withdraw it late last week.

“Our intent was to protect personal data in WiFi hotspots for large conferences,” Marriott Global CIO Bruce Hoffmeister said in a statement. “We thought we were doing the right thing asking the FCC to provide guidance, but the FCC has indicated its opposition.”

AH&LA President and CEO Katherine Lugar, meanwhile, said the group would focus instead on the efforts being undertaken by its cybersecurity task force. Lugar maintains that its goal with the petition was “to clear up the significant confusion that exists around what tools businesses can use to legally protect guests’ vital personal data.”

“We did not seek to block personal WiFi,” Lugar said in a statement. “However, it is clear that the petition is not achieving this goal, and that we must work in other ways to resolve this issue of consumer safety and cybersecurity.”

Tethered Takeaways

So now that this story is in the rear-view mirror, what insights did we gain about one of the meeting industry’s most pressing tech issues? Here’s what I’ve got:

The personal hot spot, once niche, is now mainstream. A couple of years ago, hot spots were slow and annoying—3G speeds were just fast enough to get you online, but watching a video on YouTube was an exercise in torture. And while there was the faster WiMAX in some markets, it had a limited coverage range outside of a handful of big cities, making it less feasible for globetrotters. But with LTE finally covering most of the map, it’s now feasible for users to take a personal connection as a backup at a conference or elsewhere. That’s doubly true as more iOS and Android devices become tethering tools. A few of these standalone hot spots are even novel—check out the ZTE S Pro 2, an LTE hot spot that doubles as a handheld projector, making it easy to turn any room into a karaoke party. A lot of attendees are going to have these devices from here on out, so it makes sense to embrace it.

Consistent wireless access matters more than ever. Attendees bring these wireless devices to events not because they’re paranoid, but because they need to be online, and they’ve been burned by bad wireless experiences at airports, conference facilities, or hotels over the years. By using their own device, at least they know what they’re getting. Associations that put on events are in a position to advocate for their members on this issue.

Attendees aren’t afraid to speak up. Marriott got fined because someone complained to the FCC—and the agency took the complaint seriously. After the fine was issued, the complaints got louder and the FCC realized that other facilities were doing the same thing. Naturally, the revelations raised other questions that hotel chains had to answer. One example: “Why can I get free WiFi at a $39-per-night extended-stay hotel but have to pay $15 a day at a four-star facility?” Not every such issue is going to end up on Tom Wheeler’s desk, but it might end up on your event’s hashtag or on feedback forms.

Exhibitors want a break, too. One element of this story that raised concerns with tech-focused outlets such as Boing Boing and TechDirt—and perhaps led to a more negative spin—was the use of a complex wireless structure at the Gaylord conference facility. One thing missed by the more critical coverage was that the structure—which charged exhibitors prices of up to $1,000 for better speeds—was clearly intended for companies, not regular consumers. Admittedly, some tradeshow exhibitors are willing to pay an extra cost for a faster connection. But the Marriott drama suggests that a too-aggressive approach could create a vendor backlash—leading some to simply use their own hot spots instead. The fat-pipe strategy can still work, but the advantages need to be better than “we’re the only game in town.”

Without words, actions can be misinterpreted. The problem that Marriott, AH&LA, and other hotel industry officials struggled with was one of messaging. While the industry’s security concerns were valid—a fake hot spot could prove a massive security risk in a room with a thousand people—that message ultimately got lost in a wave of consumer populism. Once the high ground was lost, it never came back. It’s a reminder that transparency matters with any legitimate security issue. If you need to do something security-related at an event, be ready to explain why at the outset.

A few years ago, I went on a vacation to Ireland and got a bit of sticker shock from my unnamed Dublin hotel. The reason? The in-room wireless access was 15 euros a day at a time when the exchange rate translated that cost to around $30. (If I were going to Ireland now, that price tag would admittedly be a lot less painful, but it’d still leave a mark.)

When enough people have that kind of experience, something will eventually give. Consumers will make clear what they’re willing to pay for a product.

And when it comes to WiFi, they’ll carry around their own if they feel like they’re getting a raw deal. Simple as that.

(Manik Rathee/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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