FCC: Do not block Wi-Fi, and jamming devices are illegal

In case there were any doubts, the FCC is making it clear that it will not tolerate any form of Wi-Fi blocking, whether it's in hotels, conference centers or some other commercial establishment.

The strongly worded advisory from the FCC came after Marriott International was fined $600,000 last year for blocking Wi-Fi at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville. The hotel chain insisted that it had used FCC-authorized equipment and through a separate filing, it sought clarity from the FCC on what Wi-Fi network management tools it could use in the future.

Based on the FCC's comments, the answer would seem to be: nothing that messes with consumers' Wi-Fi.

"Consumers must get what they pay for," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a statement. "The Communications Act prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi. 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."

Following the settlement with Marriott, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau said it received several complaints that other commercial Wi-Fi network operators may be disrupting the legitimate operations of personal Wi-Fi hotspots.

What's prohibited? The Enforcement Bureau is pretty clear on that: "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," the bureau's advisory states. "Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties."

And for good measure, the bureau reiterated that federal law prohibits the "operation, marketing or sale" of any type of jamming equipment, including devices that interfere with Wi-Fi, cellular or public-safety communications.

Speaking at the State of the Net conference earlier this week, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she'd like to see the FCC quickly dismiss Marriott's petition asking that the commission give it an expanded ability to "manage" its Wi-Fi network, The Verge reported. "There are other ways to address legitimate network security concerns, but this is a bad idea," Rosenworcel said, according to The Verge.

Marriott issued a statement Jan. 14 saying that it listens to its customers and would not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of its managed hotels. That came after a Dec. 30 statement saying the chain would not limit guests' ability to access the Internet in hotel rooms or lobby areas, but it still wanted the FCC to clarify what measures a network operator could take to detect and contain rogue or imposter Wi-Fi hotspots.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) filed the petition along with Marriott and shared a statement with FierceWirelessTech saying research shows there were some 42 million cybersecurity incidents last year, marking an almost 50 percent increase over the year before.

"With nearly 5 million people checking into hotels every day, protecting them against cybersecurity threats is of utmost importance. The intent of our petition is not to restrict personal Wi-Fi use, rather it aims to clear up the confusion that exists around the steps businesses can take to protect guest data from rogue operators or criminals targeting the attendees at large events and meetings," the AH&LA statement said.

The AH&LA is convening an industry task force "to develop practical, market-based solutions" and is collaborating "with our partners in the technology, telecommunications and other sectors to address this issue quickly," the association said. "In the meantime, we think it is incumbent on policy makers to consider how their current rules may impact consumer safety and security."

For more:
- see the FCC's Public Notice
- see this PhoneScoop article
- see The Verge article

Related articles:
Marriott pledges to not block personal Wi-Fi devices at its hotels
Google, Cisco, Microsoft, others weigh in on Marriott's Wi-Fi network management petition
Marriott, other venues want FCC to clarify Wi-Fi network-management rules
Marriott to pay $600K fine over Wi-Fi blocking allegations