The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will soon decide whether to lay down rules regarding hotels' ability to block personal Wi-Fi hotspots inside their buildings, a practice that recently earned Marriott International a US $600,000 fine.
Back in August, Marriott, business partner Ryman Hospitality Properties and trade group the American Hotel and Lodging Association asked the FCC to clarify when hotels can block outside Wi-Fi hotspots in order to protect their internal Wi-Fi services.
In that petition, the hotel group asked the agency to "declare that the operator of a Wi-Fi network does not violate [U.S. law] by using FCC-authorized equipment to monitor and mitigate threats to the security and reliability of its network," even when taking action causes interference to mobile devices.
The comment period for the petition ended Friday, so now it's up to the FCC to either agree to Marriott's petition or disregard it.
However, the FCC did act in October, slapping Marriott with the fine after customers complained about the practice. In their complaint, customers alleged that employees of Marriott's Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville used signal-blocking features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system to prevent customers from connecting to the Internet through their personal Wi-Fi hotspots. The hotel charged customers and exhibitors $250 to $1,000 per device to access Marriott's Wi-Fi network.
During the comment period, several groups called for the agency to deny the hotel group's petition.
The FCC made clear in October that blocking outside Wi-Fi hotspots is illegal, Google's lawyers wrote in a comment. "While Google recognizes the importance of leaving operators flexibility to manage their own networks, this does not include intentionally blocking access to other commission-authorized networks, particularly where the purpose or effect of that interference is to drive traffic to the interfering operator's own network," they wrote.
Microsoft and mobile trade group CTIA, among others, also urged the commission to reject the hotel petition.
Marriott argued some hotspot blocking may be justified, as long as the hotel isn't using illegal signal jammers. Unlicensed Wi-Fi hotspots shouldn't be able to interfere with hotels' Wi-Fi networks, the hotel group said in its petition.
Mobile hotspots can be used to "launch an attack against [a hotel] operator's network or threaten its guests' privacy" by gaining access to credit card numbers or other personal data, the hotel group said in its petition. Multiple outside Wi-Fi hotspots operating in a meeting room or convention center can hurt the performance of a hotel's Wi-Fi network, the group said.
The hotel group found support from Cisco Systems. "Unlicensed spectrum generally should be open and available to all who wish to make use of it, but access to unlicensed spectrum resources can and should be balanced against the need to protect networks, data and devices from security threats and potentially other limited network management concerns," Mary Brown, Cisco's director of government affairs, wrote.
While personal hotspots should be allowed in public places, the "balance shifts in enterprise locations, where many entities use their Wi-Fi networks to convey company confidential information [and] trade secrets," she added.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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