Marriott Agrees to $600,000 Fine for Blocking Wi-Fi At Opryland Hotel

It all started with a guest at the Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. The guest found that he could not use any Wi-Fi hotspots in the Marriott convention space at the hotel. He filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), alleging that the hotel was “jamming mobile hotspots so that you can’t use them.” Under a federal law that was passed at the time radio transmissions were in the infancy, it is a crime to “willfully or maliciously interfere with radio communications of any licensed station.” 47 U.S.C. §333 (2014).

The investigation bureau of the FCC began an investigation and found that Marriott 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, Marriott employees were sending de-authentication packets to the targeted access points, which would dissociate consumers’ devices from their own Wi-Fi hotspot access points and disrupt their current Wi-Fi transmissions and prevent future transmissions.

The FCC also found that the purpose of the jamming was revenue. Marriott charges conference exhibitors and other attending meetings at their convention facilities at the hotel between $250 and $1,000 per device to use the Gaylord Wi-Fi services. Convention participants were left with the choice of paying twice for access (through hot-spot services or through Marriott) or having no access at all.

As a result, the FCC brought a complaint against Marriott for violating federal law. Marriott entered into a consent decree, one that contains an admission that employees were scrambling access for convention participants. Marriott agreed to pay a $600,000 fine. You can read the consent decree here.

Also as part of the consent decree, Marriott agreed to submit a report and compliance plan to the FCC. The hotel chain must conduct an audit of all the facilities it owns or manages to stop any similar activity and then develop a plan to prevent such activity in the future.

The consent decree is a settlement process in administrative law that allows for a settlement of the charges. These charges are civil in nature. In most cases, the consent decree is similar to a nolo contendere plea – there is no admission of guilt, just a promise to stop doing what you were doing. In this case, however, the evidence appeared to be solid, and Marriott admitted to the practice. However, Marriott and other hotels, through lobbyists, are asking for clearer rules from the FCC because they believe they are undertaking the interference as a means of providing security for hotel guests and convention participants using Wi-Fi. Google and Microsoft lobbyists have lined up against the hotel security argument, and Cisco has lined up with the hotels. You can read more about the ongoing battle here. Phil Rosenthal, "Why Does Marriott Want to Jam Your Wi-Fi?" Chicago Tribune. January 10, 2015.

 Halting intentional jamming of hot-spots is a focus for the FCC. In fact, the FCC has a special team dedicated to preventing such activity. Consumers can send questions about jamming to jammerinfo@fcc.gov.

DISCUSSION STARTERS

  1. What were the possible reasons for the jamming activity?

  2. What is unique about the Marriott consent decree?