Have you ever wondered why your cell phone or personal Wi-Fi hot spot does not seem to work in some hotels?
As more business and leisure travelers equip themselves to stay in constant communication with their work place and families, they have accelerated the tendency to shun high-priced hotel room telephones and internet connections. But sometimes, even when you are in the middle of New York City (or other major urban gateway) on a high floor, your cell service or Mi-Fi just does not seem to work, and you wonder if it is being jammed intentionally by the hotel.
On Friday, October 3, 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) confirmed (at least in one case) what a lot of travelers have suspected of hotel operators when it announced that Marriott International had signed a Consent Decree and agreed to pay a $600,000 civil penalty to resolve the FCC’s Wi-Fi blocking investigation. This was an investigation into whether Marriott intentionally interfered with and disabled Wi-Fi networks established by consumers in the conference facilities of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee, in violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act.
According to the official FCC announcement, the FCC Enforcement Bureau’s investigation revealed that Marriott employees had used containment features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to prevent individuals from connecting to the Internet via their own personal Wi-Fi networks, while at the same time charging consumers, small businesses, and exhibitors as much as $1,000 per device to access Marriott’s Wi-Fi network.
Interfering with private cell phones, Wi-Fi or similar equipment violates federal law
The FCC has set up a special area on its website for providing information about and enabling the public to report illegal jamming. See www.fcc.gov/jammer.
On the website, the FCC prominently displays this warning:
Federal law prohibits the operation, marketing, or sale of any type of jamming equipment, including devices that interfere with cellular and Personal Communication Services (PCS), police radar, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and wireless networking services (Wi-Fi).
And in the October 3, 2014 announcement the FCC quoted Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc as saying, “Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center.” Furthermore, LeBlanc said that “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. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”
FCC background, resolution and copy of announcement
In March 2013, the Commission received a complaint from an individual who had attended a function at the Gaylord Opryland. The complainant alleged that the Gaylord Opryland was “jamming mobile hotspots so that you can’t use them in the convention space.” After conducting an investigation, the Enforcement Bureau found that employees of Marriott, which has managed the day-to-day operations of the Gaylord Opryland since 2012, had used features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to contain and/or de-authenticate guest-created Wi-Fi hotspot access points in the conference facilities. In some cases, employees sent de-authentication packets to the targeted access points, which would dissociate consumers’ devices from their own Wi-Fi hotspot access points and, thus, disrupt consumers’ current Wi-Fi transmissions and prevent future transmissions. At the same time that these employees engaged in these practices, Marriott charged conference exhibitors and other attendees anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per device to use the Gaylord Wi-Fi service in the conference facilities.
Under the terms of the Consent Decree the FCC announced today, Marriott must cease the unlawful use of Wi-Fi blocking technology and take significant steps to improve how it monitors and uses its Wi-Fi technology at the Gaylord Opryland. Marriott must institute a compliance plan and file compliance and usage reports with the Bureau every three months for three years, including information documenting any use of access point containment features at any U.S. property that Marriott manages or owns. To resolve this matter, Marriott will pay a civil penalty of $600,000.
Jamming is a crime
It looks like Marriott got off easy in the Opryland case. Federal law provides severe penalties for jamming cell phones and Wi-Fi, including:
- up to $112,500 for any single act and $16,000 per day for each continuing violation
- government seizure of the illegal equipment
- criminal penalties including imprisonment
See 47 U.S.C. §§ 401, 501, 503, 510; 47 C.F.R. § 1.80(b)(3).
And if this is not enough, one wonders, “When will the class actions begin?”