Hotels want ability to block consumer Wi-Fi access

Tired of the high costs of Internet access at hotels? If so and you own a smartphone, chances are that you've happily set up its Wi-Fi hotspot and wireless connected your laptop or tablet to it.

Now hotels seek permission to block that ability and force people back to sanctioned services. Marriott, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and Ryman Hospitality Properties, which owns several resorts, have asked the Federal Communications Commission to declare that they can cause interference with customer Wi-Fi hotspots. A decision in their favor would effectively allow hotels to block consumer devices, making business-provided services the only choice.

According to the petition to the FCC, the industry has framed the issue as ensuring that a hotel's network management equipment would not be liable for any interference it might cause with customer hotspots.

Wi-Fi systems work on a number of unlicensed radio frequencies and it is possible to have conflicts, where multiple devices try to use the same frequencies and interfere with each other's operations. The petitioners argue that a "Wi-Fi network operator should not lawfully be subject to sanction when using that equipment in the manner intended." In other words, they say they don't want to face legal ramifications from performing what should be a legal activity.

"A single hotspot created by a guest using his or her smartphone or tablet can cause security or interference issues by, for example, adding another [wireless hotspot ID] into the air, which can confuse other devices attempting to connect to the Internet," the petition states. That is technically correct. In addition, criminally-minded people could, in theory, create hotspots that attempt to trick people into signing into something that sounds like an official service, but that are created to capture personal information. Having too many hotspots concentrated in one area could degrade performance for all.

However, the story is more complicated. By using network management equipment, any Wi-Fi provider could effectively block another hotspot, like one from a cellphone, without technically employing signal jammers, which, as the petitioners admit, "have no lawful consumer use in the United States."

Hotels have a financial interest in convincing consumers to use the official Internet services. The average cost to provide Wi-Fi to a given hotel room is about $2.50 to $4.50 a month. Hotels turn around and charge an average of $13.95 a day. That can represent significant additional profit at a time when competitive pressure and online search capabilities have put pressure on room rates. As have the airline and car rental industries, hoteliers now depend on fees to help maintain financial success.

Last October, Mariott agreed to pay a $600,000 fine to resolve an FCC investigation into whether the chain "intentionally interfered with and disabled Wi-Fi networks established by consumers in the conference facilities" of one of its properties. According to the FCC, "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."

Under the ruling asked for, taking out customer hotspots would be OK if done by normal FCC-approved equipment.

Under the FCC consent decree, Marriott agreed to "cease the unlawful use of Wi-Fi blocking technology." But if the FCC granted the petition, Marriott, and other hotel operators, would avoid any potential penalty from such operations.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.