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March 25, 2015 Practice Points

Can Hotels Legally Block Wi-Fi Hot Spots?

The FCC says no, and fines a hotel $600,000 for doing it.

By Patrick X. Fowler

On August 25, 2014, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Marriott International, Inc., and Ryman Hospitality Properties filed a petition before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking it to reinterpret section 333 as permitting the operator of a wi-fi network (such as a hotel or convention center) to manage the use of wi-fi on its premises, even if doing so “may result in ‘interference with or cause interference’ (e.g., block) to a Part 15 device (such as a wi-fi hotspot) being used by a guest on the operator’s property.” In the alternative, the hotel petition urged the commission to commence a rulemaking proceeding to amend Part 15 to specify the interference to Part 15 devices that section 333 prohibits.

That petition was subject to public comments. The comments reflect a spirited debate on the issue of regulating access to wi-fi bandwidth. Comments filed by other hotel owners were generally supportive of the petition to allow hotels and convention centers to jam wi-fi hot spots as part of “reasonable network management.” Conversely, many technology companies, such as Google and Microsoft, filed comments calling for the petition’s denial for several reasons, including (1) the unlicensed radio spectrum that wi-fi uses should be equally accessible to everyone, including both hotels and consumers; (2) blocking personal devices constitutes jamming, and signal jamming is illegal; and (3) allowing hotels to block wi-fi hotspots is against the public interest. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association also voiced its opposition to the petition.

Notably, more than one FCC commissioner issued a statement of strong opposition to the hotel industry’s petition, including Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

UPDATE: In the face of such widespread opposition, counsel for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Marriott International, Inc., and Ryman Hospitality Properties notified the FCC by letter on January 30, 2015, that they were withdrawing the petition. While this will presumably bring the petition to an end, the docket has not yet been closed by the FCC. Even before announcing the withdrawal of the petition, Marriott International had issued a public statement on January 14, pledging not to block guests’ wi-fi devices at any of its managed hotels.

What’s the takeaway? Tension between businesses that offer wi-fi Internet access, for a price, and customers who bring their own, already-paid-for Internet connectivity is nothing new. However, the growing cyber-security risk threatens everyone who is connected to the Internet, and is forcing businesses to find new security solutions that do not involve blocking their guests’ use of their personal wi-fi devices. Once again, finding the “right” balance between security and convenience remains elusive in cyberspace.

Patrick X. Fowler, Snell & Wilmer L.L.P.

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