Marriott to pay $600K fine over Wi-Fi blocking allegations

The FCC is letting it be known that it's not going to put up with Wi-Fi blockers, at least not when it comes to the Marriott hotel chain and facilities in Nashville, Tenn.

Marriott International will pay $600,000 to resolve an FCC investigation into whether Marriott intentionally interfered with and disabled consumers' Wi-Fi networks in conference facilities in Nashville, Tenn., in 2013. The FCC said that in settling the issue, Marriott admits that employees improperly used a Wi-Fi monitoring system to block mobile hotspots.

The FCC said its Enforcement Bureau's investigation revealed that Marriott employees had used containment features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel to prevent individuals from connecting to the Internet via their own personal Wi-Fi networks. This was being done at the same time the hotel chain was charging consumers, small businesses and exhibitors as much as $1,000 per device to access Marriott's Wi-Fi network.

"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," said Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc in a press release. "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."  

The commission said it had received a complaint from an individual who had attended a function at the Gaylord Opryland in March 2013. The complainant alleged that the Gaylord Opryland was "jamming mobile hotspots so that you can't use them in the convention space."

After conducting an investigation, the Enforcement Bureau found that employees of Marriott had used features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to contain and/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. At the same time, Marriott was charging conference exhibitors and other attendees anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per device to use the Gaylord Wi-Fi service in the conference facilities, according to the FCC.    

Under the terms of the settlement, Marriott must stop using the Wi-Fi blocking technology and take "significant steps" to improve how it monitors and uses its Wi-Fi technology at the Gaylord Opryland, the FCC said. The hotel chain must file compliance and usage reports with the bureau every three months for three years.

In a statement, Marriott said it believes its actions at Gaylord Opryland were lawful. "Marriott has a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft," the company said in a statement. "Like many other institutions and companies in a wide variety of industries, including hospitals and universities, the Gaylord Opryland protected its Wi-Fi network by using FCC-authorized equipment provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers."

The company added that it will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rulemaking "in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today's action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy."

For more:
- see this FCC news release
- see this Re/code story
- this PCWorld story
- and this Gizmodo story

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