In a public notice issued this week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) warned hotels, convention centers and other businesses that it is illegal to willfully block or interfere with their guests’ Wi-Fi hot spots (and thus effectively require the guests to pay a fee to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi network for internet access). This “Enforcement Advisory” is the latest step in a multi-sided kerfuffle about public access to Wi-Fi bandwidth.
The FCC called Wi-Fi “an essential on-ramp to the internet”, and noted that “personal Wi-Fi networks, or ‘hot spots’ are an important way that consumers connect to the internet.” It then noted that its Enforcement Bureau has “seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless customers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises.”
The FCC stated that it considers such activity to be an “unlawful intentional interference”, in violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended. That federal law (47 U.S.C. § 333) provides that:
No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this chapter or operated by the United States Government.
The FCC considers Wi-Fi signals to be radio communications, and thus covered by the Communications Act.
The FCC’s warning follows its earlier investigation, resulting in an October 2014 Consent Decree, into Wi-Fi blocking practices by the operator of a major resort hotel and convention center. The hotel operator used technology to block the personal Wi-Fi hot spots of customers and exhibitors, while at the same time charging them as much as $250 to $1,000 per device to access the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network. The hotel operator agreed to pay a civil penalty of $600,000 to settle the FCC’s charges against it.
On a related note, on August 25, 2014, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Marriott International,Inc., and Ryman Hospitality Properties filed a Petition before the FCC asking it to re-interpret Section 333 as permitting the operator of a Wi-Fi network (like a hotel or convention center) to manage the use of Wi-Fi on its premises, even if doing so “may result in ‘interference with or cause interference’ to a Part 15 device (such as a Wi-Fi hotspot) being used by a guest on the operator’s property.” In the alternative, the Hotel Petition urges the Commission to commence a rulemaking proceeding to amend Part 15 to specify the interference to Part 15 devices that Section 333 prohibits.
That Petition is now in the public comment stage, and comments can be reviewed and posted here. The comments reflect a spirited debate on the issue of regulating access to Wi-Fi bandwidth. Comments filed by other hotel owners are generally supportive of the Petition to allow hotels and convention centers to jam Wi-Fi hot spots as part of “reasonable network management”. Conversely, many technology companies, such as Google and Microsoft, have filed comments asking that the Petition be denied for several reasons, including (1) the unlicensed radio spectrum that Wi-Fi uses should be equally accessible to everyone, including both hotels and consumers; (2) blocking personal devices constitutes jamming, and signal jamming is illegal; and (3) allowing hotels to block Wi-Fi hotspots is against the public interest.
Notably, more than one FCC Commissioner has already issued statements indicating strong opposition to the hotel industry’s Petition, including Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. The FCC is expected to take action on the Petition sometime in 2015.