FCC to fine Hilton Hotels $25K for not cooperating in Wi-Fi blocking investigation

The FCC's Enforcement Bureau has proposed a $25,000 fine against Hilton Worldwide Holdings for what the FCC calls an apparent obstruction of an investigation into whether Hilton engaged in the blocking of consumers' Wi-Fi devices.

"Hotel guests deserve to have their Wi-Fi blocking complaints investigated by the Commission," Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC Enforcement Bureau, said in a press release. "To permit any company to unilaterally redefine the scope of our investigation would undermine the independent search for the truth and the due administration of the law."

This isn't the first time the FCC has proposed fines related to blocking of Wi-Fi at hotels. In October 2014, the FCC fined Marriott International and Marriott Hotel Services $600,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking activities at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.

In the more recent action, the commission said that in August 2014, it received an initial consumer complaint alleging that the Hilton in Anaheim, Calif., blocked visitors' Wi-Fi hot spots unless those consumers paid a $500 fee to access Hilton's Wi-Fi. The commission also received Wi-Fi blocking complaints about other Hilton properties.

In November 2014, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau sent a letter to Hilton seeking information concerning basic company information, relevant corporate policies and specifics regarding Wi-Fi management practices at Hilton-brand properties in the United States. But after nearly one year, Hilton failed to provide the requested information for the vast majority of its properties, the FCC said, noting that Hilton operates several brands, including Hilton, Conrad, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites and Waldorf Astoria properties.

The bureau is directing Hilton to immediately provide essential information and documents about its Wi-Fi management practices and warned the company that it may face a significantly higher fine for any continued obstruction or delay.

That wasn't the only Wi-Fi blocking action out of the FCC, however. The FCC also plans a $718,000 fine against M.C. Dean for blocking consumers' Wi-Fi connections at the Baltimore Convention Center. An Enforcement Bureau investigation found that M.C. Dean, one of the largest electrical contracting companies in the U.S., blocked personal mobile hotspots of convention visitors and exhibitors who tried to use their own data plans to connect to the Internet rather than paying M.C. Dean substantial fees to use the company's Wi-Fi service. 

M.C. Dean charged exhibitors and visitors as much as $1,095 per event for Wi-Fi access. The commission's investigation into the situation came after it received a complaint from a company that provides equipment that enables users to establish hotspots at conventions and trade shows. After receiving the complaint, Enforcement Bureau field agents visited the venue on multiple occasions and confirmed that Wi-Fi blocking activity was taking place. 

During the investigation, M.C. Dean revealed that it used the "Auto Block Mode" on its Wi-Fi system to block consumer-created Wi-Fi hotspots at the venue. The Wi-Fi system's manual describes this mode as "shoot first, and ask questions later." M.C. Dean's Wi-Fi blocking activity also appears to have blocked Wi-Fi hotspots located outside of the venue, including passing vehicles, the FCC said. The commission is charging M.C. Dean with violating Section 333 of the Communications Act by maliciously interfering with or causing interference to lawful Wi-Fi hotspots.   

In August 2015, the FCC fined Smart City Holdings $750,000 for similar Wi-Fi blocking at multiple convention centers across the country. 

Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, the two Republicans on the commission, dissented on the M.C. Dean enforcement action, saying they wanted to see an industry-wide rulemaking to consider more specifics. O'Reilly noted that the commission has never considered whether using deauthentication software violates statute or commission policy. Wireless LAN product vendors earlier this year expressed concerns about knowing what can or can't be used for LAN security and management.

Pai said the commission doesn't have any rules that limit Wi-Fi blocking because it dropped the ball earlier this year. "There is widespread agreement that we should take action to limit Wi-Fi blocking," Pai said in a statement. "The disagreement is over how we should go about doing that. I believe that we should adopt rules that clearly set forth when Wi-Fi blocking is unlawful and when, if ever, it is lawful."

For more:
- see these two FCC releases
- see this Network World article

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