Marriott International will pay a $600,000 fine for jamming conference attendees' own Wi-Fi networks at its Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, forcing them to pay hefty prices to use the hotel's own connection.
Frequent travelers often carry personal Wi-Fi hotspots — tiny devices that can connect to the Internet via cell phone towers. For $50 a month, they can connect to the Internet on the move, often avoiding hefty fees charged by hotels, airports and conference facilities. Some people upgrade their wireless data plans to make their smartphones into hotspots.
Last year, a conference attendee at the Opryland hotel in Nashville, Tennessee — which is managed by Marriott — found that the hotel was jamming devices in its ballrooms and complained to the Federal Communications Commission. In the complaint, the guest noted that the same thing happened previously at another Gaylord property. The block didn't affect Wi-Fi access in guest rooms.
While jamming personal Wi-Fi connections, Marriott was charging conference organizers and exhibitors between $250 and $1,000, per access point, to use the Gaylord's Wi-Fi connection. The FCC declined to release the initial guest complaint except if requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a process that can often take weeks.
Marriott agreed to the fine and has instructed its hotels not to use the jamming technology in the way it was used at Opryland, according to the FCC. But the company on Friday defended the blocking of guests' own Wi-Fi networks in the interest of network security. The company said it is legal to use FCC-approved technology to protect its Wi-Fi service against "rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks, and identity theft," adding that hospitals and universities employee similar jamming practices.
At the four Gaylord hotels in the US, Marriott today monitors for hotspots causing interference but does not automatically block such connections, said Harvey Kellman, a lawyer for the hotel company. Only a handful of Marriott's 4,000 other hotels worldwide currently screen for hotspot interference.
Marriott said it encourages the FCC to change its rules "to eliminate the ongoing confusion" and "to assess the merits of its underlying policy."
The government said people who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal connection will be blocked.
"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," Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau said in a statement. "This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether."