In the U.S., jamming communications signals is illegal. Over the years, I’ve written a number of posts about the FCC’s persistent efforts to prevent jamming. Among these were fines and other actions taken against an Internet marketer of cell phone jamming devices; a variety of individuals and companies selling cell phone jamming devices through Craigslist; an employer attempting to block cell phone calls by its employees at work; a truck driver jamming GPS frequencies to prevent his employer from tracking his whereabouts; and an individual jamming the frequencies used by a shopping mall for its “mall cop” communications systems.
In each of these cases, the FCC went after either the party selling the jamming device, or the user of that device. Normally, jammers work by overloading the frequency with a more powerful interfering signal, confusing the signal receiver or obliterating the lower-powered “authorized” signal entirely. Historically, jammers have often been individuals with a grudge or an employer/employee trying to get the electronic upper hand on the other.
It was therefore a new twist when the FCC announced today that it had entered into a Consent Decree with one of the largest hotel operators in the U.S. “for $600,000 to settle the [FCC’s] investigation of allegations that [the operator] interfered with and disabled Wi-Fi networks established by consumers in the conference facilities at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee … in violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended….”
The FCC’s Order describes the basis for its investigation and the Consent Decree as follows:
Wi-Fi is an essential on-ramp to the Internet. Wi-Fi networks have proliferated in places accessible to the public, such as restaurants, coffee shops, malls, train stations, hotels, airports, convention centers, and parks. Consumers also can establish their own Wi-Fi networks by using FCC-authorized mobile hotspots to connect Wi-Fi enabled devices to the Internet using their cellular data plans. The growing use of technologies that unlawfully block consumers from creating their own Wi-Fi networks via their personal hotspot devices unjustifiably prevents consumers from enjoying services they have paid for and stymies the convenience and innovation associated with Wi-Fi Internet access.
In March 2013, the Commission received a complaint from an individual who had attended a function at the Gaylord Opryland. The complainant alleged that the Gaylord Opryland was “jamming mobile hotspots so that you can’t use them in the convention space.” Marriott has admitted that one or more of its employees used containment features of a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to prevent consumers from connecting to the Internet via their own personal Wi-Fi networks. The Bureau investigated this matter to assess Marriott’s compliance with Section 333 of the Act and has entered into the attached Consent Decree. To resolve the Bureau’s investigation, [the operator] is required, among other things, (i) to pay a $600,000 civil penalty to the United States Treasury, (ii) to develop and implement a compliance plan, and (iii) to submit periodic compliance and usage reports, including information documenting to the Bureau any use of containment functionalities of Wi-Fi monitoring systems, at any U.S. property that [it] manages or owns.
Today’s Order makes clear that the FCC’s concerns about “signal jamming” are not limited to traditional brute force radio signal interference. In this case, the jamming was done by “the sending of de-authentication packets to Wi-Fi Internet access points.” Also of interest is that the FCC did not assert, as it often has in past jamming cases, that it was concerned about the impact of jamming communications on those in nearby public spaces. It appears that the “de-authentication” was limited to areas inside the hotel/convention center, and the FCC made clear that even this limited jamming was “unacceptable”.
This is not the first time the FCC has exercised its authority in ways affecting the hospitality industry (for example, fining hotels because their in-house cable systems don’t comply with FCC signal leakage limits designed to protect aviation communications). However, the FCC’s willingness to step in and regulate access to Wi-Fi on hotel property indicates that the FCC might be a growing influence on hotels’ business operations, particularly as hotels seek to make an increasing portion of their revenues from “guest fees” of various types, including for communications services. The Order indicates that the hotel here was charging anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per wireless access point for convention exhibitors and customers, providing a powerful incentive for the hotel to prevent parties from being able to sidestep those charges by setting up personal Wi-Fi hotspots.
Figuring out ways to drive up demand for these hotel services is Business 101. Doing it in a way that doesn’t draw the FCC’s ire is an upper level class.