The FCC has acted to protect personal WiFi access points and hotspots, such as “MiFi” devices and smart phones that permit tethering, from being disabled by Wi-Fi providers. This action took the form of a consent decree in which Marriott Hotels has agreed to pay $600,000 for blocking personal WiFi devices used by consumers in conference facilities. According to the FCC, Marriott’s Opryland Hotel deployed a Wi-Fi monitoring system manufactured by a third party that could identify “rogue” hot spots and send de-authentication packets. The packets sever or degrade the connection between consumers’ devices, such as smart phones or tablets, and the personal “hot spots,” and thus prevent connection to the Internet.

The FCC found that blocking such WiFi connections violates Section 333 of the Communications Act, which prohibits any effort to “willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under” the Act. In the past, the FCC has relied on this provision to ban jamming of cell phones or other devices, but, before now, had not cited it to prevent interference with WiFi hot spots using unlicensed spectrum. In the Marriott case, the FCC expressed concern that the blocking was motivated by a desire to force customers to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi services.

This decision may not be the end of the story. Marriott and others have filed a petition with the FCC to permit property owners to manage their WiFi networks within their premises by, among other things, using FCC-authorized equipment to identify and block “rogue” hot spots. The petition argues that hotels and convention center owners should be able to deploy high capacity networks for use by exhibitors and guests, including WiFi access. They claim that widespread use of personal WiFi hotspots can cause interference to these systems and degrade everyone’s access. While the FCC generally does not permit intentional jamming of authorized devices, it is possible that the hotels could convince the FCC that their approach actually is the one that minimizes interference.