Wade Sims for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
As the battle for Net Neutrality rages on, Federal regulators may soon be ruling in another dispute between consumer access and business control of the Internet.
In a petition to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission made public last week, the American Hospitality & Lodging Association and Marriott International asked the FCC to declare that a hotel operate can deploy equipment that “may result in ‘interference with or cause interference’ to a Part 15 [Wi-Fi] device being used by a guest on the operator’s property.”
“Wi-Fi network operators should be able to manage their networks in order to provide a secure and reliable Wi-Fi service to guests on their premises,” Marriott argued.
The petition was filed just before Marriott was fined $600,000 in October by the FCC for blocking consumer Wi-Fi networks at the Marriott-owned Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Hotel staff used a Wi-Fi monitoring system that would target and de-authenticate guests’ personal Wi-Fi hotspots but leave the hotel’s network unaffected.
Marriott also charged guests between $250 and $1,000 for hotel-provided Wi-Fi access.
In its petition and in comments following the FCC investigation, Marriott claims that blocking consumer hotspots is necessary to ensure a stable and secure hotel Wi-Fi experience that is free from rogue networks and hackers.
Hilton Worldwide filed a brief in support of hotel blocking, claiming, “Hilton could not meet its guests’ expectations were it unable to manage its Wi-Fi networks, including taking steps to protect against unauthorized access point that pose a threat to the reliability and security of that network.”
Specifically, Hilton suggests that allowing hotel guests to use personal hotspots will result in a “tragedy of the commons,” where so many different access points compete for bandwidth within a hotel that guests won’t have consistent Internet access. Hilton and Marriott also suggest that allowing “rogue” networks will threaten the cyber-security of the hotels’ Wi-Fi networks.
A handful of technology companies, including Google, Microsoft, and the CTIA – the wireless industry’s trade group – have each filed briefs in opposition to Marriott, urging the FCC to reject the hotel group’s petition.
“Allowing hotels or other property owners deliberately to block third parties’ access to Wi-Fi signals would undermine the public interest benefits of unlicensed use,” Google stated.
“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.”
Section 333 of the FCC Authorization Act prohibits anyone from “willfully or maliciously” interfering with radio communications “licensed or authorized” by the U.S. Government. The section has been interpreted to mean that people and businesses cannot use devices like signal jammers to block Wi-Fi access. Passive blocking, such as the kind accomplished by shielding movie theaters with faraday cages, is permissible.
Although FCC does enforce some restrictions for Wi-Fi devices, Wi-Fi networks operate on unlicensed airwaves, meaning that anyone can access and use them.
Marriott argues that Section 333 should not apply to Wi-Fi hotspots because Part 15 devices are “unlicensed” and were approved by legislation enacted after Section 333.
A lawyer’s opinion
Marriott’s argument is both legally unsound and would set dangerous precedent harmful to consumers, if adopted.
With new technologies pushing towards Internet-based communications, it is more important than ever that consumers are allowed unrestricted access to Internet services.
The FCC has consistently ruled, with appropriate legal authority, against the active jamming or blocking of Wi-Fi signals, including against Marriott itself, on grounds that blocking wireless communications is unlawful and damaging to consumers.
Although Part 15, wireless devices operate on “unlicensed channels, the devices themselves still fall underneath FCC regulations as either “licensed” or “authorized” by the U.S. Government.
Forcing consumers into using enterprise Wi-Fi solutions by blocking legal, client-based alternatives would give businesses like Marriott unfettered control over guests’ Internet access.
Most obviously, hotels would have a monopoly over Internet access and could charge guests with exorbitant Wi-Fi fees; much like Marriott did with its $1,000 access rates at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.
Worse yet, hotels and other enterprises could also easily censor access to content deemed undesirable to the business via the Wi-Fi access contract terms. For example, Hilton could block all access to travel booking websites that list hotels with lower rates.
Marriott claims that jamming Wi-Fi hotspots is necessary to prevent cyber-crime, but the company fails to explain exactly how consumer Wi-Fi hotspots are a security threat.
Hackers attempting to break into hotels’ Wi-Fi networks would not have any use for easily detectable Wi-Fi hotspots operating entirely outside of the hotel’s intranet. Rather, hackers would attempt to access the hotel’s Wi-Fi network directly, which would not be detectable or prevented by the Wi-Fi jamming tools Marriott wants to be able to use.
Furthermore, by shutting down alternate and free networks, Marriott actually increases the risk of a security breach; technology-savvy guests who don’t want to pay hotel for access, now blocked from using their legally purchased hotspots, are much more likely to try to hack the hotel’s network and steal free Internet access.
While a hotel monopoly over Internet access would be very expensive and inconvenient to the weekend vacationer, the move could be catastrophic to professional business travelers.
Attorneys traveling for litigation and corporate groups meeting for conferences will often set up “war rooms” using secured Wi-Fi hotspots for exchanging sensitive or confidential material. By using a hotspot instead of the hotel network, corporate travelers can authorize only specific people to access their networks and guarantee that their information is secure while traveling.
If hotels were allowed to shut down these networks and force groups to use hotel access, hotel administrators, and possibly other hotel guests, could gain access to business groups’ confidential information.
Because the network security would be managed by the hotel administrators and not by the travel group, travel groups might not be able to prevent or even detect a security breach.
Finally, while Marriott and Hilton claim that Wi-Fi hotspots will propagate unchecked and hurt network performance for everyone, neither fully explain why unrestricted hotspot hosting is the consumer’s problem on public property but suddenly becomes the business’ concern on private property.
Users who suffer degraded performance on their own personal hotspot are more likely to blame their wireless provider than the hotel. Further, many users sophisticated enough to use a Wi-Fi hotspot know to scan for empty channels and change their device’s broadcast settings accordingly.
If Marriott really is afraid that the channels will become too congested, it fails to explain how dumping all of those users onto a single congested network will suddenly solve performance issues.
The comment period for the FCC petition has passed, but you can always vote with your wallet and avoid Marriott and Hilton hotels. Otherwise, if during your holiday vacation your hotel hotspot connection seems a little flakier than usual, now you might know why.
Wade Sims is an attorney in Nashville, TN specializing in technology law, internet policy and civil liberties in the Information Age. A former Major League Gamer, homebrewer, wine consultant and writer, he loves all things gaming, geeky, gustatory, and alliterative.