Fair or Fraud: Hotels Block WiFi, then Gouge Customers

John Lister's picture

Contractors at a convention center have been fined $718,000 for blocking visitors from using their own mobile data services. Meanwhile the Hilton chain has been fined $25,000 for obstructing an investigation into similar claims.

The Hilton case began with allegations that the chain's hotel in Anaheim, California used blocking technology to stop users operating mobile hotspots. Those are portable devices which receive a cellular data signal (similar to that used to get Internet access on a smartphone) and turn it into a WiFi signal, which can then be used on laptops or smartphones.

A complaint investigated by the Federal Communications Commission says the hotel accompanied this block by charging customers an eye watering $500 for WiFi access during their stay. Additional complaints said similar blocks took place in other Hilton hotels.

At this time last year, the FCC asked Hilton for details of any policies its hotels regarding wireless Internet access. The commission has yet to receive the relevant documents and has issued the fine in the hope of forcing Hilton to respond. It's important to note the FCC has yet to rule on whether the Hilton chain did block signals and whether such an action broke any laws.

Firm Charged $1,000+ For WiFi Access

Meanwhile the FCC has proposed a hefty fine for a company that did block mobile hotspots at the Baltimore Convention Center. MC Dean Inc, which provides WiFi at the facility at rates sometimes exceeding a thousand dollars per user per event, admits it did carry out such a block. However, it argues such an action is not illegal. (Source: fcc.gov)

The FCC disagrees and has proposed the $718,000 fine. MC Dean now has 30 days to formally object to the fine.

1934 Law At Center Of Dispute

It's the FCC's contention that deliberately blocking a WiFi signal is a violation of section 333 of the Communications Act, which reads "No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this chapter or operated by the United States Government." The main legal argument is whether that section - originally written in 1934 - is applicable to WiFi. (Source: cornell.edu)

The FCC has previously fined three companies, most notably the Marriott chain, large amounts for blocking mobile hotspots to force customers to pay for their own WiFi access.

What's Your Opinion?

Should hotels and convention centers be allowed to block mobile hotspots? Is this unfair interference with customers' communications? Or is it a case of "if you don't like it, stay or visit elsewhere?"

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Dennis Faas's picture

The law certainly seems relevant today even if it was fabricated in 1934. The only difference here is that it is a Wifi signal and not necessarily a 'radio' signal as intended for that time.

bern's picture

You either have to deliberately jam the incoming telco signal or you have to jam the wifi, by broadcasting a stronger wifi signal than the hotspot.

The first is definitely illegal in the UK and under most jurisdictions. As you have have an operator's license to broadcast a signal not connected with a licensee whose conditions are strictly controlled.

WiFi operates on unlicensed (free) wave bands for multiple user use. Again there are strict legal limits on the power on the signal you can use to deliberately limit the potential interfere with other users (including medical users such as paramedics).

They prosecute lorry (sorry truck) drivers jamming GPS signals so why not WiFi? The principle is the same, so are the safety implications.

femakahuna's picture

I will ask the question when making a reservation from now on. I pay for my hotspot and will not tolerate it being block by any one.

georgegrimes's picture

Wi-fi is in the RF spectrum and claiming that it is not "radio" is splitting hairs exceedingly fine. This is a nonsense argument.

doulosg's picture

We like the idea of a Federal Complaints Commission, but I'm sure you meant "Communications." Lol, as they say.

I recently stayed at a Hilton chain hotel and received free wifi of decent quality. They also offered a premium version for $4.95/day, which was free to members of the hhonors loyalty club. I found only one or two sites (apparently) blocked under the basic plan, and I was fine for keeping up email and social media during my stay. $1000 per user is so outrageous that one wonders how an intelligent company could even agree to pay such rates.

John Lister's picture

Thanks for catching this. I sometimes mix up the Federal Communications Commission vs Federal Trade Commission (as both have some authority over tech firms), but this was a new one!

gmthomas44_4203's picture

I'm not a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon but, WiFi is a "radio" signal, is it not?
It's not a Smoke signal or a light signal and it is regulated by the FCC I believe.
Ergo sum, they are in violation, and yes, you can choose to take your business elsewhere, but that is not good remedy.

Boots66's picture

I fully agree with the 1934 ruling - In our day and age we like to update the names of things but WiFi is still a radio signal with more tuning to it, the same as Cell phones are a form of Radio as well with specific encoding so that you have only your connection. I do not travel as much as I once did for work or otherwise but never had a hotel 'block' wireless.
I hope that a permanent solution can be legally entrenched to stop this kind of cash cow gouging just for the almight buck!

guitardogg's picture

This is just another case of corporate greed! Breaking the law is business as usual for these companies. That's why they have so many lawyers. Yes WiFi is a radio signal, and blocking it is against the law, plain and simple.

SeaSteve's picture

The article is unclear about some very important points. As I read through the responses I'm left thinking the Hotel's blocked "Wi-Fi" frequencies.

The Wi-Fi radio frequencies are in the "unlicensed" industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio bands so communications equipment operating in these bands must tolerate any interference generated by ISM equipment, and users have no regulatory protection from ISM device operation.

As long as the hotel is blocking the Wi-Fi frequencies and not the "licensed" Cellular frequencies it may be legal.

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISM_band and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellular_frequencies

guitardogg's picture

Legal or not, it is still WRONG!

gi7omy's picture

The fact that 2.4 GHz is defined as 'ISM' is a bit misleading really. It is also the frequency band used by Amateur Radio, Microwave ovens, hospital diathermy machines and bluetooth, radio control models (among others).

Interference with access to that, or any other band, band is jamming and is illegal. Check the wiki on that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_jamming

Don Cook's picture

If I could find a way to block the accounts (all accounts) (to the same $ amount) of anyone or body that blocks a customers leagal right to talk to any one else by any means& pay the blockee that money.

Bob's picture

I have run into a cell tower that does not allow my hot spot to link a notebook. It is along US95 in California south of Needles.