by Michael J. Shapiro | March 01, 2015
"Marriott Wants to Block Your Wi-Fi!" screamed January's headlines, and those headlines were everywhere. What happened? The Marriott-operated Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville had blocked some conference-goers from setting up personal Wi-Fi hot spots in a meeting area, and the Federal Communications Commission took a hard-line stance against such practices. The FCC fined Marriott $600,000, and the lodging company was cast as the bad guy in a public lashing over Internet-access restrictions.
Well before the FCC levied the fine, Marriott, along with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, had filed a petition with the commission that sought clarification on what wireless network operators were permitted to do in the name of network security. However, pummeled by bad press and outraged customers who saw the request as a assault on Wi-Fi freedom, Marriott withdrew the FCC petition.

"Many thought our actions smacked of greed, that we were looking for a way to force customers to buy access to Wi-Fi in our hotels," wrote Marriott president and CEO Arne Sorenson in a Jan. 30 blog post. "Denying this and pointing out that individual guests [who are Marriott Rewards members] could easily get free Wi-Fi didn't help much. Nobody really had time to get into the details. Mostly our statements just led to more negative coverage and reaction."

While the hotelier opted to back out of the debate, there's still confusion about the relationship between Wi-Fi freedom and network security. The complex topic will remain a hot button for meetings -- at least until regulatory guidelines are fine-tuned.

Review of the Facts
The Wi-Fi flap was difficult to sum up in tidy sound bites, which led to much misunderstanding. Many of the headlines proved inaccurate. M&C took a closer look by reviewing documents and speaking to technology experts, as well as Marriott, to dispel some of the myths. Among our conclusions:

 Marriott was not attempting to block Wi-Fi access in guest rooms or lobbies. The issue here was about the Wi-Fi in meeting spaces and the equipment used to monitor and potentially block personal hot spots in the vicinity.

 Marriott wasn't using illegal signal-jamming equipment. However, in an FCC Enforcement Advisory issued on Jan. 27, a few days before Marriott withdrew its petition, the FCC referred to the case and then, in the next section of its advisory, stated, "Federal law prohibits the operation, marketing, or sale of any type of jamming equipment, including devices that interfere with Wi-Fi, cellular or public safety communications," implying that Marriott could have been trying to do just that.

In fact, Marriott was using FCC-approved network-monitoring technology from Aruba Networks; similar equipment is made by Cisco Systems and others. These systems are widely used, not just in the hospitality sector but also in corporations, hospitals, universities, the military and elsewhere. Signal jammers, on the other hand, are illegal and cannot be purchased from your average retailer. But the FCC's advisory calls into question the legality of the blocking functions available in the FCC-approved devices. Neither Aruba nor the FCC responded to M&C's requests for comment. (Cisco issued a statement, which we'll address shortly.)

 Marriott's petition wasn't a protest of the fine. "We filed the petition [in August 2014]...well before the fine was brought down," notes Harvey Kellman, Marriott vice president and assistant legal counsel, information resources and eBusiness. "We filed the petition out of a genuine desire for the FCC to clarify its ambiguous rules, and to have other industries and stakeholders weigh into the debate concerning what steps a network administrator can lawfully take to protect the integrity and security of its network and Wi-Fi environment."

 There is not widespread use of the wireless network monitoring equipment in Marriott's portfolio. According to Kellman, 26 of Marriott's more than 3,000 hotels in the U.S. are equipped with the technology, and all of those are large, conference-oriented properties. Of the 26, only five hotels are actually using it, says Kellman, and in the past 90 days there were no instances of anyone being blocked. The platform serves primarily to monitor the Wi-Fi network and offers the option to contain "rogue" or unauthorized hot spots that could be deemed security threats.