Air War Over Hotel WiFi Brewing

As every traveler knows, the proliferation of connected devices and the pricing of cellular connections has turned WiFi hotspots into digital oases. For a number of years I gave up on hotel connectivity (priced at $10 a day and up) and just brought my own Verizon MiFi hotspot with me when traveling. In most cases, the LTE connection was faster than many hotel's WiFi setups anyway.

Apparently, I am not alone, and the Marriott chain has taken notice of the trend. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the company recently settled an FCC complaint regarding its use of blocking technology at a Tennessee Marriott that thwarted personal hotspot signals. The result was that hotel guests and conference attendees had to pay for Marriott’s own WiFi service. Shortly after the settlement, the American Hospitality and Lodging Association and Marriott petitioned the FCC to allow hotels to use technology that lets them “manage” their internal WiFi networks to block signals that may cause interference or security threats.



The FCC has already ruled that hotels cannot deliberately block someone else’s WiFi router. The AH&LA and Marriott, as well as the Ryman chain, are looking to clarify that rule. The petition argues: “Any access point can be used to launch an attack against an operator's network or threaten its guests' privacy (for example, by attempting to obtain guests' credit card or other personal information). Likewise, multiple Wi-Fi access points operating in a meeting room or on a convention floor of a hotel can adversely affect the performance of the hotel's Wi-Fi network. If a hotel is powerless to address such activities to ensure the security and reliability of its Wi-Fi network on its premises, both the hotel and its guests would suffer.”

Google and Microsoft are joining to oppose the petition. Google makes the case most plainly in observing the obvious, that this appears to be as much a ploy to drive business to paid hotel access as it is an attempt to protect the network and guests.

Marriott no doubt takes a PR hit for this move (as it should), which also creates a massive opportunity for competitors. This week Hyatt announced that, starting in February, it will make free WiFi available in all of its lobbies and hotel guest rooms worldwide. The company laid down the gauntlet in a telling phrase from VP of Brands Kristine Rose: “Internet connectivity is no longer an amenity. It has become an integral part of travelers’ daily lives and a basic expectation.”  

Of course there is no telling yet exactly how robust these free connections will be. But free WiFi generally is becoming an important opportunity for advertisers who can help support the costs of these networks or sponsor enhanced service.  

The larger idea of connectivity as a standard utility is an important one. It aligns WiFi with water fountains, wall plugs and public bathrooms. I would be surprised if we were still paying for hotel WiFi at other chains in the next couple of years. Likewise, the challenge is now in the court of other venues -- most notably, the airlines. 

"WiFi icon" photo from Shutterstock

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