Wi-Fi hotspot blocking persists despite FCC crackdown

Our examination of complaints to FCC finds consumer suspicions about big name hotels even after large fines for Wi-Fi hotspot blocking were issued

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been found guilty of doing,” wrote a person from Napa, Calif., in late October of 2014.

“The ruling today with regard to Marriott blocking wi-fi reminded me of an issue I had a few months ago while staying at [a hotel] in Oakland,” wrote one person from Modesto, Calif., in early October 2014. “My hot spot was blocked and every attempt to surf pushed me to the hotel’s page… There are undoubtedly numerous hotels which do this, so the message that it is illegal needs to be more widely circulated.”

The FCC attempted to do exactly that with its January 2015 Enforcement Advisory: “The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference.” Though it’s a bit surprising that the FCC is unwilling to go on record giving any sort of update on that effort to re-emphasize the point.

MORE: Wi-Fi Blocking Debate Far From Over

One person grumbled about getting blocked at a casino/resort/spa in Las Vegas: “On Friday I was in the convention center. A hotel employee asked how the convention was going. I said fine except my cell phone internet would not work. The employee said that’s because the convention center blocks wifi signals. I asked why they do that? The employee said because wifi in the convention center is a paid service…”

Another cited Smart City for jamming Wi-Fi signals at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, and in fact, this very Internet service provider was fined $750K last summer by the FCC for blocking people’s Wi-Fi to encourage them to pay for service at five sites, including one in Orlando. “I contacted Smart City and they denied any wrongdoing, but we were able to collect the attached router logs indicating deauthentication was taking place,” a person from San Francisco wrote.

Still another, attempting to use a Verizon Jetpack Mi-Fi 4510L hotspot device, wrote of a Four Seasons hotel in Florida whose tech team “denied blocking wifi, but also said they only support Four Seasons network. Suggested I call Verizon to troubleshoot – unable to troubleshoot because IP address for hotspot is blocked by the hotel.” The hotel offered free low-speed Internet access or a daily paid service.

The FCC refuses to comment on any ongoing WiFi blocking investigations or whether hotels and other organizations seem to have cleaned up their acts since the agency issued its warning at the start of 2015. But an FCC spokesman does say that the agency’s Enforcement Bureau investigations into WiFi blocking stem both from consumer complaints as well as from other tips. “Thoroughly investigating potential violations of the law, including following up on consumer complaints, is a core function of the agency,” he says.

Some IT professionals at organizations outside of hospitality (such as universities) wish the FCC would elaborate on its concerns. They remain wary about what they can and can’t do in terms of managing and securing wireless networks using de-authentication and other tools supplied by WLAN vendors like Aruba, Cisco, Ruckus and Xirrus (See “Wi-Fi blocking debate far from over”). 

Behind The Wi-Fi Hotspot Blocking Scenes

The blocking of Wi-Fi hotspots at hotels and convention centers is naturally much more complicated than what you can glean from consumer complaints, says technology marketing veteran Andy Abramson, author of the VoIPWatch blog and a victim of Wi-Fi blocking himself. He tells of one Las Vegas venue – since fined -- that was threatening to escort people out of the building if they were caught using a third-party connection. 

“They weren’t blocking using technology, they were blocking by intimidation,” he says. 

The real backstory to much of this, Abramson says, is that venues typically have contracts with third-party providers written by attorneys whose expertise lies in real estate or commercial dealings rather than telecom/networking specifically. These deals guarantee exclusivity for broadband providers, and include promises for union electricians, etc., but don’t account for the major technology changes we’ve seen in wireless and beyond. They also can prevent companies from installing technology such as distributed antenna systems (DAS) that could help deliver LTE or 4G broadband services to venues, he said.

The end result has been that venues and their partners have looked to cover their costs by offering pricey Internet access -- and thus, “the Mi-Fi market was born,” Abramson says. There are promising changes taking place, especially at newer venues where better and more flexible wireless setups are being installed, but he says to date “it’s all been about ignorance to technology advancements or about milking the customer for as long as possible using older, slower technology so the investment is paid back and profits made.”

So yes, consumers have had plenty to complain about.

Consumer complaints about WiFi hotspot blocking to the FCC (Oct 2014-Dec 2015)

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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