Marriott must pay $600,000 for blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots

The hotel chain blocked outside hotspots while charging customers up to $1,000 per device to access its own Wi-Fi service

Here's some payback for everyone who has felt gouged by hotel charges for Wi-Fi service: Marriott International has to pay $600,000 following a probe into whether it intentionally blocked personal Wi-Fi hotspots in order to force customers to use its own very pricey service.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission looked into allegations 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 regulator said in its consent decree. The hotel charged customers and exhibitors $250 to $1,000 per device to access Marriott's Wi-Fi network.

The hotel's Wi-Fi blocking violated the U.S. Communications Act, the FCC said.

"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," FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc said in a statement. "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."

Marriott said it believes its actions were legal.

"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 will push for the FCC to create rules that "eliminate the ongoing confusion" from the settlement, Marriott said.

The FCC received a complaint in March 2013 from a person who attended an event at the Gaylord Opryland. The hotel was "jamming mobile hotspots so that you can't use them in the convention space," the complaint alleged.

The FCC Enforcement Bureau, during an investigation, found that employees of Marriott used a Wi-Fi monitoring system to target guest-created Wi-Fi hotspots, in some cases disconnecting customers' devices from their own hotspot access points.

Marriott, under the terms of the consent decree, must stop using Wi-Fi blocking technology and change how it monitors and uses Wi-Fi at the hotel. Marriott must also create a compliance plan and file compliance reports with the FCC every three months for three years, including descriptions of any access-point containment technologies the company uses at any of its U.S. properties, the agency said.

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 grant_gross@idg.com.

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