by Leo Jakobson | January 28, 2015
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) yesterday issued a formal Enforcement Advisory warning that hotels and other businesses are prohibited from blocking or interfering with personal Wi-Fi hotspots.
The warning comes as a result of a $600,000 fine that the FCC levied against Marriott International, after the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville was found to be blocking guests' personal Wi-Fi hot spots in its convention space. While Marriott paid the fine, it also petitioned the FCC to permit this type of blocking.

While the commission has not yet formally ruled on that position, the FCC Enforcement Bureau on Jan. 27 made it clear that hotel operators should not assume that they can block personal Wi-Fi hot spots while the petition process is ongoing.

"No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner's Wi-Fi network," the Enforcement Bureau wrote in its advisory. "Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties."

In explaining its decision, the bureau stated: "In the 21st Century, Wi-Fi represents an essential on-ramp to the Internet. Personal Wi-Fi networks, or 'hot spots,' are an important way that consumers connect to the Internet.

Beyond noting that "willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal," the FCC also said that federal law prohibits the use and sale of any type of jamming equipment that interferes with Wi-Fi, cellular service, or public safety communications.

The Marriott case was not an isolated incident, either. "The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment's premises," it said in the advisory. "As a result, the bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference."

Anyone that suspects they may have been the victim of Wi-Fi blocking is advised to file a complaint with the FCC at www.fcc.gov/complaints or (888) CALL-FCC.

The full text of the FCC Enforcement Advisory can be found here.