Marriott, other venues want FCC to clarify Wi-Fi network-management rules

The Marriott hotel chain may have agreed in October to pay $600,000 to settle an FCC claim, but that isn't the end. Some major hotel and real estate operations, including Marriott, want the FCC to clarify how Wi-Fi operators can manage their networks, reports Multichannel News.

Marriott agreed to pay the $600,000 settlement after allegations that its employees blocked hotspots at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville. The FCC said that Marriott employees had used containment features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the hotel to prevent individuals from connecting to the Internet via their own personal Wi-Fi networks. At the same time, the hotel was charging consumers, small businesses and exhibitors as much as $1,000 per device to access Marriott's Wi-Fi network.

When the settlement was announced, Marriott issued a statement saying that it believed the Gaylord Opryland's actions were lawful and that it vowed to continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rulemaking order "to eliminate the ongoing confusion" resulting from the fine. It had filed a petition for a declaratory ruling on the matter in August, and in November the FCC invited comments on it. Interested parties have until Dec. 19 to comment.

Marriott and its fellow petitioners say they use hotspot-management tools to protect guests from rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyberattacks and identity theft. The hotel chain also insisted that it had used FCC-authorized equipment provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers.

Specifically, attorneys for the American Hospitality & Lodging Association, Marriott International and Ryman Hospitality Properties filed the petition for a declaratory ruling or, in the alternative, for a rulemaking. They want the FCC to declare that the operation of FCC-authorized equipment by a Wi-Fi operator in managing its network on its premises does not violate the law, even though it might result in "interference with or cause interference" to a Part 15 device being used by a guest on the operator's property. If that doesn't fly, they want the FCC to address their issues in an industrywide proceeding by initiating a rulemaking to amend its Part 15 rules.

The petitioners state at the outset that the petition is not about any actual or threatened interference to licensed spectrum or spectrum used by the government. It's also not about implicating the commission's net-neutrality rules, and it does not involve signal jammers.

The type of gear that Marriott and other Wi-Fi hosts use is manufactured by the likes of Aruba Networks and Cisco, among others. These systems typically provide visibility into activities affecting the quality of wireless Internet connectivity provided by a Wi-Fi network operator, including coverage and access points. They note that many large universities employ various techniques as well, listing more than 20 university network-management techniques in the appendix of the filing.

One approach to dealing with Wi-Fi interference is "channel changing," which occurs when a different or "cleaner" channel is automatically selected for the access point when RF interference increases, the petition states. However, within the 2.5 GHz frequency, the most widely used Wi-Fi band, there are only three non-interfering channels, and even within the 5 GHz band, only four non-overlapping 40 MHz-wide channels exist. Having a limited number of channels to which to change causes problems with clients disassociating and reassociating, causing disruption and creating a domino effect with neighboring access points, the filing says.

As CommLawBlog points out, Marriott and its fellow petitioners use sophisticated and expensive Wi-Fi network-management systems that search for unauthorized or excessive uses of a network. When those types of uses are detected, the systems send codes to disable them. Those signals technically don't "interfere" with guest Wi-Fi signals or "jam" any radio signals, which would be illegal. They simply send management commands that keep unwanted systems from accessing the venue's own system. The bad news, the blog notes, is that the disabling management commands also keep the unwanted private systems from functioning independently, even if those systems don't try to interconnect or slow down the venue's system.

The petitioners say the increased availability of Wi-Fi, particularly mobile hotspots, has put a premium on the need for equipment to monitor and, if necessary, mitigate unauthorized access points that threaten the security and reliability of an operator's Wi-Fi network.

For more:
- see this Multichannel News article

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