Google, Microsoft Face Down Hilton, Marriott In Fight Over Blocking Hotel Hotspots

Hotel wifi really sucks sometimes: it can be expensive, insecure, and slow all at once. When there’s a convention in town, the network’s so overloaded you can’t connect at all. So travelers bring their own mobile hotspots. It’s a win for the consumer, but not for the hotel that suddenly loses the ability to charge you more fees. And that’s the core issue behind a regulatory fight that has hotels and tech firms arguing over what consumers are allowed to do.

A Marriott hotel and convention center “solved” this problem by jamming the signals coming from mobile hotspots on the show floor. That left exhibitors and attendants with no real option except to use the Marriott network, which cost between $250 and $1000 per access point. That was great for the hotel (and bad for their customers) while it lasted, but as it turns out, doing that is incredibly illegal. Marriott got slapped with a $600,000 fine over it, which they grudgingly paid.

From Marriott’s perspective, of course, that particular piece of law sucks. But rather than outright flout it again and find themselves handing over more wads of cash in civil penalties, they’re taking a different tactic: demanding to have the rule changed.

Marriott, along with two other hotel companies, formally petitioned to have the relevant FCC rule — or at least the interpretation of it that applies to them — modified so that in the future, they can go back to jamming guests’ personal hotspots with impunity. The issue is now an open FCC proceeding (RM-11737).

Other hotel chains, which also enjoy making money by nickel-and-diming customers for every possible amenity, have signed on in support. In a comment (PDF) to the FCC, the company that owns Hilton hotels called the practice of jamming personal hotspots “reasonable network management” that prevents their own proffered networks from becoming unusable. Network management is perfectly permissible and encouraged under the law so, therefore (the thought goes), the hotels should be a-ok to block everyone else’s signals on-site.

Tech companies, however, are racing to disagree. Google and Microsoft have filed comments in opposition, as have the NCTA (the trade and lobbying group for the cable and telecom industry) and the CTIA (the trade and lobbying group for the wireless industry).

Microsoft (PDF) and Google (PDF) both make the same essential arguments: one, that the unlicensed spectrum wifi uses belongs (or doesn’t belong) equally to pretty much everyone, including both hotels and consumers. Two, that blocking personal devices constitutes jamming, and signal jamming is illegal. And three, that allowing hotels to screw around with other uses of wifi is against the public interest. Since protecting the public interest is the FCC’s mandate, therefore, it follows that they shouldn’t allow hotels to block personal wifi signals.

Both tech giants agree that the hotels have a legitimate and reasonable interest in protecting their own networks, but that preventing other networks from existing in the same space isn’t the same thing. As Microsoft puts it, “Willfully excluding these other authorized devices from using that unlicensed spectrum, under the guise of mitigating so-called threats to the reliability (performance) of an operator’s own network, violates Section 333,” the rule that all of this is happening under.

The FCC — which has a few other things to worry about at the moment — has not yet made a decision on the petition, but likely will in early 2015.

[via Ars Technica]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.