Marriott Jams Wi-Fi, Gets Smacked Down By FCC

By Joelle Renstrom | 7 years ago

marriottI can’t think of the last time I stayed in a Marriott hotel, and according to this next story, that’s a good thing — unless one happens to want to disappear from social media and the internet in general. The Gayland Opryland Nashville resort, which is run by Marriott, recently got busted for a cute little scam involving making it impossible to stay connected to WiFi, even hotspots.

Like all conference centers, the Marriott charges exhibitors and organizers for WiFi. This might seem strange, given that hotel guests generally get free Internet access, but trade shows and conferences are a whole different story — Marriott’s free WiFi doesn’t extend to conference or meeting rooms. Hotels rake in money by charging for access, which organizers and exhibitors pay because everyone needs or wants to be connected while making presentations, updating social media, networking, etc. But these days, savvy guests and organizers can bypass those restrictions using 4G LTE networks and portable hotspots.

Naturally, hotels have caught on to this, and managers at the Gaylord Opryland were actually technologically adept enough to figure out a way to prevent conference attendees from doing this. They essentially kicked people off their own WiFi networks via something called deauthentication. This is generally a technique used to piss off people who are trying to get and stay online, and it disconnects people from real access points and instead connects them to networks that are masquerading as legit. This can be used for hacking, or to then deny service. It’s pretty similar to this Google Glass Wifi-disrupting program.

While some version of deauthentication is used to prevent Wi-fi intruders, Gaylord Opryland used it to boot people off any and all nearby connections, forcing folks to fork over the exorbitant amount of cash it takes to get WiFi in a conference center, or at least preventing them from circumventing the policies. Unsurprisingly, the FCC was not amused. According to Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc:

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. 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 Wi-Fi network. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.

Hear hear! The FCC determined that the Marriott had to stop these shenanigans pronto, not just as that Nashville hotel but at all Marriott and Marriott-owned branches across the country, as they violated Section 333 of the Communications Act. On top of that, the FCC slapped Marriott with a $600,000 fine. I think I speak for many a guest when I say HA HA!

Of course, the Marriott says it did nothing wrong, and that it was only trying to “protect” their service from “rogue” hotspots. Yeah, somehow I don’t think so. With all the talk about hacking and net neutrality these days, it can be hard to know if the FCC stands on the side of good or evil. But their position on this issue is crystal clear — they actually backed the consumer on this one. Let’s hope we see the trend continue.