Operators of convention centers and other public assembly venues are joining forces to avoid becoming the next Marriott or Hilton in the eyes of an FCC Enforcement Bureau that’s been cracking down on Wi-Fi blockers.
Wi-Fi blocking has become a hot button issue across the hospitality and convention center industry, as well as across the wireless LAN industry, in light of big FCC fines against outfits found to have been blocking use of wireless hotspots by those who have a legal right to access unlicensed spectrum.
As reported by MeetingsNet and others this month, the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM) recently formed a Wi-Fi Coalition “to collaborate on issues, challenges, and solutions for high density Wi-Fi environments in response to the FCC’s actions against Marriott,” according to IAVM’s Jason Judy. Members include the Convention Industry Council and individual convention center reps (Javits Center, Mass Convention Center Authority, etc.) , among others.
"We believe that delivering an exceptional technology experience at meetings and events requires a new level of collaboration and dialogue between venue managers, service providers, show organizers, meeting planners, exhibitors, and guests. We are thrilled to see the coalition bringing these groups together, and we are confident that this new effort will lead to meaningful results,” said Vicki Hawarden, CEO of IAVM, in a statement.
The FCC slapped Marriott with a $600K fine last year following complaints against one of its Nashville properties for blocking visitors from using personal Wi-Fi hotspots, presumably to charge them an arm and a leg for Internet access (though Marriott and others have claimed a need for blocking to secure their network and protect other patrons). The FCC also issued a stern warning at the start of the year about Wi-Fi blocking, and indeed did fine several other outfits during 2015 for infractions, ranging from blocking to interference with investigations.
The Wi-Fi Coalition spearheaded by the IAVM is working on “common sense standards” to ensure reliable wireless access at venues without running afoul of the FCC. Providing such access has become increasingly challenging as event attendees arrive armed with more and more wireless devices and demands for better and better connectivity. The Coalition is also looking to focus on contract terms, which could potentially ease relationships between venues and third-party wireless service providers.
The IAVM’s Facility Manager Magazine has been running a series of articles on “The Wi-Fi Dilemma” and the next piece is expected to address the Wi-Fi blocking issue.
The 5-member FCC is not unanimous in its support for the sort of Wi-Fi blocking enforcement that has taken place over the past year, with one commissioner even raising the question of whether the FCC had “gone off the rails” with its latest fines.
Some IT professionals as well as WLAN product vendors such as Xirrus are urging the FCC to clarify its rules on Wi-Fi blocking as well. There is an HP events person represented on the IAVM Wi-Fi Coalition but no WLAN product vendor reps that I could detect.
The Hotel Technology Next Generation association, which includes Marriott among its members, issued a WiFi roadmap in April, that while only touching on the topic of blocking tools, looks like it has some potential to help organizations stay on the right side of the law. (Meanwhile, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a hospitality industry group that sided with Marriott’s right to block users of personal Wi-Fi hotspots, claims to have formed a Cybersecurity Task Force but did not reply to my inquiries earlier this year about whether the task force has in fact been formed or accomplished anything yet.)