Feds slap Marriott for blocking guests' WiFi

Marriott International (MAR) has agreed to a $600,000 penalty to resolve an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission about the company blocking WiFi access of those using conference center facilities at a hotel and forcing them to pay to use Marriott's network, the agency announced on Friday.

The FCC received a complaint that Marriott disabled consumers' WiFi networks at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn., a violation of federal law. An investigation determined that it did happen.

After blocking WiFi access, Marriott charged $250 to $1,000 to exhibitors, small businesses and attendees who wanted wireless Internet access, the FCC said.

"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," FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said in a statement. "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 WiFi network. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether."

Many business travelers carry small devices that allow them to have their own, secure WiFi networks. These mobile hotspots are recommended by security experts, who consistently advise businesses and those with sensitive information to avoid public WiFi networks.

The FCC said the investigation stemmed from a complaint lodged last year that Gaylord Opryland, operated by Marriott since 2012, was "jamming mobile hotspots so that you can't use them in the convention space." The FCC investigation determined that Marriott had a monitoring system that it used to identify hotspots set up by those at the facility. Marriott employees would then disrupt these links.

To resolve the matter, in addition to agreeing to the $600,000 penalty, Marriott will "cease the unlawful use of WiFi blocking technology," and document any "access point containment features at any U.S. property that Marriott manages or owns."

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.