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Wi-Fi hotspot blocking persists despite FCC crackdown

Bob Brown | March 11, 2016
Our examination of complaints to FCC finds consumer suspicions about big name hotels even after large fines for Wi-Fi hotspot blocking were issued

The FCC has slapped hotels and other organizations with nearly $2.1 million in fines since the fall of 2014 for blocking patrons’ portable Wi-Fi hotspots in the name of IT security, or more likely, to gouge customers for Internet service. But Network World’s examination of more than a year’s worth of consumer complaints to the FCC about Wi-Fi jamming shows that not all venue operators are getting the message (see infographic below).

Indeed, more than half of the 50-plus complaints whose contents we pored through following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FCC came within the few months after the FCC’s initial action on this matter, a $600,000 fine on Marriott in October of 2014. Another two dozen complaints trickled in to the FCC in 2015 – a year that began with the FCC serving stern notice that Wi-Fi blocking is prohibited and ended with the agency dishing out a $718,000 fine to big electrical contracting company M.C. Dean for blocking consumers’ Wi-Fi connections and a $25,000 fine to Hilton Worldwide for “apparent obstruction of an investigation” into whether Hilton blocked consumers’ Wi-Fi devices. The spectrum used by Wi-Fi is unlicensed, and therefore available for broad use.

Complainants’ identities were redacted by the FCC Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau in the documents delivered to us via the FOIA request, and just because a complaint or comment was filed does not mean that an FCC violation occurred. However, the complaints as a whole do paint a picture of a problem that is both widespread geographically and in terms of where suspected Wi-Fi hotspot blocking has taken place. No doubt others have experienced Wi-Fi blocking with personal hotspot devices supplied by the likes of AT&T or Verizon and didn’t complain to the FCC because they didn’t feel like it, didn’t realize there was an FCC consumer complaint site and hotline, or didn’t even know they were being stymied.

MORE: How Not To Get Slammed By The FCC For Wi-Fi Blocking

Big name hospitality outfits, from Sheraton to Motel 6, were named, with one person describing a Motel 6 Wi-Fi network in Denver as acting “like a virus… [It] would not remain disconnected” and allow the patron to use his or her hotspot.

A handful of Marriott locations were fingered by consumers well after the FCC levied its fine. One consumer argued that Marriott blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots is an infringement on freedom of speech, as “forcing me to use their system allows them to block me from sites (say Hilton’s website) that they don’t like.”

Casinos, airports and lesser-known organizations were also complained about, with several people critical of Boingo at airports. One complaint even suggested a big retailer was blocking customer Wi-Fi so as to force them onto a store network that would allow patrons’ movements and search engine inquiries to be tracked.


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