Marriott dispute sparks WiFi regulatory rethink round the world

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The ongoing storm over the Marriott’s jamming of external WiFi signals, in its meeting and conference rooms, has at least given regulators around the world cause to reconsider their stances on unlicensed spectrum.

The saga began, or at any rate took off, in August 2014, when Marriott International, along with business partner Ryman Hospitality Properties and trade group the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), asked the FCC to clarify whether, and if so when, hotels could block outside WiFi hotspots in order to protect their internal WiFi services. These parties filed a petition that has come to be known as the AHLA petition, given that it was led by the AHLA, though instigated by Marriott.

The wording of this petition was itself disingenuous, given the widespread suspicion that Marriott was actually seeking to protect its WiFi network revenues rather than integrity. Marriott charged between $250 and $1,000 per device for wireless access at its Nashville conference room, where jammers were used.

Such suspicions seemed justified by Marriott’s clarification that it was only jamming in conference or meeting rooms and that guests were actually encouraged to access external WiFi networks from either their bedrooms or other communal spaces, such as the lobby area. This begged the question of why external networks posed a threat in conference rooms and not elsewhere in the hotel. Besides, many delegates at conferences access external networks purely because the official WiFi network, provided by Marriott is often congested and painfully slow. Furthermore there has been little suggestion that external WiFi networks pose a problem at other public places, such as shopping malls, airports or coffee shops.

Yet while Marriott’s argument for jamming might appear bogus and should be vehemently opposed, the case does beg clarification over what organizations can legitimately do to protect their networks against attack. Few would deny that businesses be allowed to prevent external networks intruding on their domain and to some extent the case revolves around whether a hotel meeting room be treated like an enterprise space, separate from the public lobby.

That’s really a red herring and the real need is for overall clarification from regulators. After all, at present it is not even illegal to use approved equipment to jam cellular signals using licensed spectrum within a limited private domain, such as a church or school classroom, as a way of preventing annoying use of mobile phones during meetings or lessons for example, even if this is rarely done in practice. There is also the question of when jamming or other measures can be used to protect enterprise or other networks.

So although most major IT technology firms, spearheaded by Microsoft and Google, have roundly condemned Marriott’s petition, the hotel has gained some nuanced support from vendors of WiFi equipment, including Cisco itself, whose US director of government affairs Mary Brown stated, “unlicensed spectrum generally should be open and available to all who wish to make use of it, but access to unlicensed spectrum resources can and should be balanced against the need to protect networks, data, and devices from security threats and potentially other limited network management concerns.”

Cisco has urged the FCC to issue a policy statement on WiFi management in general, recommending industry best practices over use of the unlicensed spectrum “in accordance with evolving public policy objectives and discouraging questionable conduct.”

Similarly, WiFi equipment vendors Aruba and Ruckus issued a joint comment to the effect that the FCC should acknowledge the important role network management can play in protecting networks, whether wireless or wired. The argument is that there are benefits to consumers and network users when their open WiFi networks are protected from data thieves and cybercriminals. This begs the question of who does the network managing, especially as Aruba and Ruckus seem to be talking partly about mobile network operators in the same breath, alluding perhaps to evolving heterogeneous networks where WiFi plays a key part in overall subscription services.

“The commission can and should use the AHLA Petition as a vehicle for nuanced balancing of the commission’s policies promoting unlicensed spectrum, and WiFi in particular, with the needs of network operators to maintain secure and reliable WiFi networks,” they said in their joint statement.

The FCC might well agree with that line in principle, but has shown little sign so far of backing Marriott’s position in the dispute. In October 2014 two months after the petition was filed, the FCC slapped a $600,000 fine on Marriott, after agreeing with complaints from customers that employees of Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville had used signal-blocking features of a WiFi monitoring system to prevent them connecting to the Internet via their chosen personal WiFi hotspots.

The FCC is now close to deciding whether finally to introduce an outright ban over WiFi blocking by hotels, but is finding that the case has opened a Pandora’s box which might not be as easy to close as at first appeared. The FCC will probably end up by prohibiting such jamming by hotels, if only because it appears to be as inconsistent and arbitrary as applied by Marriott. Significantly no other major hotel group has come out in support and all deny indulging in any jamming themselves, in conference rooms or otherwise.

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.