It may have taken a $600,000 fine and near-universal condemnation from guests, the media, and the U.S. government, but Marriott Hotels seems to have finally gotten the message. The hotel chain announced Wednesday that it would end its practice of blocking guests' access to Wi-Fi hotspots.
According to a statement by the Bethesda, Maryland-based company, "We will not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of our managed hotels."
Not a Jammer
The issue at hand dates back at least as far as a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission in March 2013 by an individual who had attended an event at the Gaylord Opryland, a hotel owned by Marriott in Nashville, Tennessee. According to the original complaint, the hotel was jamming Wi-Fi signals in order to prevent guests from accessing them from the convention area.
According to the FCC, Marriott employees used features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system to contain or de-authenticate guest-created Wi-Fi hotspot access points in the conference facilities. In some cases, employees sent de-authentication packets to the targeted access points, which would dissociate consumers' devices from their own Wi-Fi hotspot access points and, thus, disrupt consumers' current Wi-Fi transmissions and prevent future transmissions.
The company denied that it was using signal-jamming equipment, which is expressly forbidden by the FCC, saying instead that employees had used "network management equipment" in order to "provide secure and reliable Wi-Fi service to guests."
But guests, and the media, saw the behavior as a money grab rather than a legitimate security measure. By blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots, the hotel was forcing attendees to pay for Internet access provided by the hotel itself. As the FCC pointed out in a statement explaining its decision to fine the company, the Gaylord Opryland and Convention Center was charging attendees anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per device to access Wi-Fi service.
'A Risk to Guests'
The company argued that jamming Wi-Fi hotspots was necessary in order to prevent a network attack against itself and its guests. "Wi-Fi networks are more susceptible to a variety of attacks that can threaten the security and reliability of a hotel's network or pose a risk to guests," the company wrote in a filing with the regulator.
But the argument carried no weight with either public opinion or guests, who excoriated the company for the practice. Tech companies such as Google and Microsoft argued alongside the Consumer Electronics Association that such practices were blatantly illegal and prejudicial to Marriott's customers.
The FCC agreed.
"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," FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc wrote in a statement announcing the agency's fine against the company in October 2014.
"It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel's own Wi-Fi network. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether," he added.
Marriott's change of heart in abandoning its practice of blocking use of personal Wi-Fi devices is an acknowledgment of the fact that it was an untenable position for Marriott in the face of legal challenges from the FCC as well as backlash from customers and technology behemoths like Microsoft and Google.
We caught up with Tejas Mehta, research analyst at Parks Associates. Mehta told us that although Marriott may have been spurred more by financial considerations than security, network security is a valid concern for venues.
"Marriott's motive aside, the whole episode has broader implications and does raise legitimate questions about security, interference and network congestion issues at venues such as conferences, stadiums, and hospitals," Mehta said in an e-mail.
"These venues will need to work with device manufacturers, technology partners, and service providers to find technology-based solutions to address these concerns without infringing on customers' rights," he said.