Marriott International will pay the government a $600,000 fine for jamming conference attendees' own Wi-Fi networks at one of its hotels, forcing them instead to pay as much as $1,000 each to use the hotel's own connection.
Frequent travelers often carry personal Wi-Fi hotspots — tiny devices that can connect to the Internet via cell phone towers. For $50 a month, they can connect to the Internet on the move, often avoiding hefty fees charged by hotels, airports and conference facilities. Last year, a conference attendee at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee — which is managed by Marriott — found that the hotel was jamming their device in its ballrooms and complained to the Federal Communications Commission. In the complaint, the guest noted that it had happed previously at another Gaylord property.
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The FCC said Marriott charged conference exhibitors $250 to $1,000, per device, to use the Gaylord's Wi-Fi connection. The FCC declined to release the initial guest complaint except if requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a process that can often take weeks.
While agreeing to the fine, Marriott on Friday defended the practice of jamming guests' own Wi-Fi networks. The company said this wasn't aimed at charging guests extra for Internet access but about protecting its network. It said the hotel's actions were legal and encouraged the FCC to change its rules "to eliminate the ongoing confusion" and "to assess the merits of its underlying policy."
"Marriott has a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft," the company said in a statement, adding that hospitals and universities employee similar jamming practices.
Marriott operates or franchise more than 4,000 hotels around the world. A spokesman for the company wouldn't say how many other hotels employ block personal Wi-Fi connections.
The government said people who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal connection will be blocked.
"It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel's own Wi-Fi network," Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau said in a statement. "This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether."
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.