Hotels & Lodging

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Jamming the Signal? Marriott is Paying the Price

8 Jan, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Travel Market Is Responding to Hotel Chain’s Fight with the FCC to Block Access to Wi-Fi

It’s a first-world problem, and it’s getting a lot of attention in the travel market.

Hotel chain Marriott International is continuing its fight with the FCC over wi-fi access rights on its properties. According to travel business site Skift, in October, the agency imposed a $600,000 fine after it was discovered the that Marriott had intentionally jammed conference attendee’s personal wi-fi networks at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

This allowed Marriott to charge conference exhibitors $250 to $1,000, per device or per access point to use the Gaylord’s Wi-Fi connection. Access points provide Wi-Fi to hundreds of conference attendees, according to a Marriott spokesperson.

While agreeing to the fine, Marriott defended the practice of jamming guests’ own Wi-Fi networks. The company said this wasn’t aimed at charging guests extra for Internet access but about protecting its network. It said the hotel’s actions were legal and encouraged the FCC to change its rules “to eliminate the ongoing confusion” and “to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

“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, adding that hospitals and universities employee similar jamming practices.

Marriott’s stance isn’t winning friends and influencing people. In an article entitled “Marriott is bad and should feel bad,” The Economist noted, “the saga started back in August, when Marriott and the American Hospitality & Lodging Association, a hotel lobby group, asked the FCC to issue rules allowing establishments to block customers' wireless modems and hotspots. Then, in December, tech and telecom giants, including Microsoft and Google, filed comments with the FCC opposing the Wi-Fi-blocking plan—triggering a new round of outrage at the very idea.”

In response, Marriot issued another statement saying, in essence, it was only protecting its guests from identity theft and other threats.

The Economist wasn’t buying it, noting, “This is, frankly, hard to believe. Marriott and other hotels make large amounts of money by charging businesses and individuals exorbitant rates to connect to the internet in conference spaces and meeting rooms. There is little evidence that such places are any more vulnerable to "cyber-attacks" and "rogue and imposter Wi-Fi hotspots" than your neighborhood coffee shop or food court.”

Other hotel chains have been quick to point out their own freedom of access to wi-fi. Skift noted that Hilton Hotels, Kempinski Hotels, Intercontinental and Hyatt Hotels stated they do not have policies that jam, block or prevent guests’ use of personal wi-fi hotspots. (However, Hilton Worldwide has submitted a comment to the FCC in support of Marriott’s position). The majority of Wyndham’s hotels are independently owned and operated, fall within the economy and midscale segments, and provide complimentary wi-fi to guests.

The ripple effect has been felt in the business community serving the travel market. According to an article in Travel Weekly, agents and agency groups were up in arms with Marriott, claiming that the plan to offer free wi-fi to Marriott Rewards customers who book directly amounted to a disincentive to use a travel counselor.

Further, it can be expected that hotel chains will use their free wi-fi access as a lure to bring in groups who might otherwise have been considering Marriott (or even Hilton) properties.

For now, the battle continues. The FCC is currently accepting public comments about Marriott's petition. Those who are interested can submit a comment here.

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