FCC Warns Businesses WiFi Blocking is Illegal

In the wake of a recent enforcement action against Marriott for blocking guests’ WiFi hotspots in their hotels, the FCC is warning other hotel operators and business owners that such blocking is illegal and the commission’s Enforcement Bureau is taking note.

Marriott last year paid a fine of $600,000 to settle an FCC enforcement action that resulted from a customer complaint. A guest complained that while staying at the Gaylord Opryland hotel in Tennessee his personal WiFi hotspot was being blocked and he was being forced to pay to use the hotel’s network. The investigation by the FCC found that in some cases the hotel’s network would send de-authentication packets to the personal hotspots used by guests, forcing their devices to disconnect.

Earlier this month, the hotel chain issued a short statement saying that it would no longer block WiFi hotspots in its properties.

“Marriott International listens to its customers, and we will not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of our managed hotels.  Marriott remains committed to protecting the security of Wi-Fi access in meeting and conference areas at our hotels,” the company said in a statement.

Now, the FCC is making it clear that the Enforcement Bureau is looking closely at this kind of behavior, not just by hotel operators, but by any commercial business.

“Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal. Wi-Fi blocking violates Section 333 of the Communications Act, as amended.1 The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference,” the Federal Communications Commission said in a statement issued this week.

Hotels and convention centers often will charge expensive daily rates for groups wanting Internet access during an event, as well as the typical rate they charge normal guests for WiFi access. Guests who have personal WiFi hotspots, such as MiFi devices, can avoid these fees by connecting directly to their provider’s network. That cuts into the hotel’s revenue, but the FCC is warning business operators not to step over the line.

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

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