Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2018

Cover Story

FCC Counters Wi-Fi Blocking:
What It Means to You

It’s official. A facility cannot block consumers’ Wi-Fi hotspots, and that’s big news for meetings.

The Federal Communications Commission resolved a March 2013 complaint from an attendee at a Gaylord Opryland function about “jamming mobile hotspots so that you can’t use them in the convention space.” The FCC’s investigation resulted in a consent decree that fines Marriott International and its subsidiary Marriott Hotel Services, Inc., $600,000, requires Marriott to “cease unlawful use” of Wi-Fi containment technology, and institutes a three-year compliance plan that monitors and reports back to the agency every three months. The reports must document any access point containment features at any U.S. property that Marriott manages or owns.

“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,” said FCC enforcement bureau chief Travis LeBlanc.

Surprised by the announcement, many show organizers, exhibitors, facilities, Internet service providers and industry associations were just beginning to examine the ramifications. “We are studying the decision with our Industry Affairs Advisory Council,” said Vicki Hawarden, CMP, president and CEO, International Association of Venue Managers. “We don’t know how many venues might be doing [Wi-Fi blocking]. But given this ruling, we’ll be looking at what we can pursue to protect their interests.”

While he had heard stories that some facilities blocked Wi-Fi, Frank Gainer, OTR/L, CMP, CAE, found it hard to believe that they would deny access to people who were paying for their own plans. “I think this will put pressure on the providers to fix this,” said the director of conferences at the American Occupational Therapy Association.

“All major hotels and convention centers have to pay attention to this,” noted Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, DES, Corbin Ball Associates. Still, he called it “really harsh,” and acknowledged that Marriott has a valid point in its public response, which reads:

“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. Like many other institutions and companies in a wide variety of industries, the Gaylord Opryland protected its Wi-Fi network by using FCC-authorized equipment provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers. We believe that the Gaylord Opryland’s actions were lawful. We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rulemaking in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

Rogue hotspots do decrease Wi-Fi reliability, Ball noted, especially at large conventions. A “classic example” is Steve Jobs attempting to demonstrate Apple’s iPhone 4 in 2010. He had to ask those assembled to turn off their Wi-Fi hotspots because they were interfering with the demo. Meanwhile, larger facilities that invest millions of dollars to upgrade their wireless infrastructure reasonably expect payback.

Phil DeFina, president of Safety Management Systems, Inc., exhibits at national and regional shows. It’s critical to his small business to demonstrate how his products operate over the Internet and wirelessly. At a major convention center, his wireless signals (and those of other exhibitors there) were blocked, despite assurances that there was no jamming. “I knew we had the right to wireless access through our FCC-licensed dealer,” he said. But he had not spent “thousands of dollars” with the center’s Internet provider. At a subsequent show, exhibitors were warned that the facility and its Internet provider could not guarantee Wi-Fi service when rogue access points were used. “It’s about freedom of choice,” he maintained. “We’re a captive audience. If they want to be competitive, they should look at their pricing.”

“This clear precedent affects everyone in the tradeshow industry and makes attendees, exhibitors, organizers, Internet service providers and venues equal,” said Ian Framson, CEO, Trade Show Internet. “The FCC has said there is no justification for unilaterally deciding to ban classes for the sake of the common good. Internet exclusivity is unenforceable.”

What does this mean to show organizers, facilities, exhibitors and third-party providers?
• From this point forward, Gainer will ask this question of facilities: “Are you blocking our attendees and exhibitors from accessing the Internet using their own legal devices and plans? They’re not trying to steal the service from anyone.”
• In response to the decision, venues need to be more reasonable in their pricing, said Ball. “They can’t force people to pay $1,000 a day for hotspots.”
• Framson advised meeting professionals to consult their counsel about revising existing contracts that block access points and not signing new contracts with this provision.
• He also suggested a non-technological solution. Someone from show management, the general service contractor, or the in-house Internet service provider could coordinate and suggest that exhibitors set Wi-Fi access points to broadcast on non-overlapping channels. “Cooperation and coordination can achieve much more than Wi-Fi jamming,” he noted.
• Map out and include the facility’s technology specifications in the meeting contract, as well as a statement that the group and its attendees have the right to access and use their own Wi-Fi hotspots on a complimentary basis, suggested Barbara Dunn, partner, Barnes & Thornburg LLP. “The FCC’s decision calls attention to the access and pricing issues often encountered by groups. From a practical standpoint, groups will likely still have to use the hotel or convention center’s system to get optimum speed and user capacity. But for personal users, the victory is big.”

Not all venues block hotspots. “There is no need to change any of our policies because we do not block or jam any wireless transmissions at our properties,” said a Hilton spokesperson.

“We advocate freedom of choice,” said David DuBois, CMP, CAE, FASAE, CTA, president and CEO, International Association of Exhibitions and Events. “A facility has the right to offer Wi-Fi services at a reasonable price, and we respect the ruling that allows other services not to be blocked.”

Smart City Networks, a provider of technology services for meeting venues, is filing a Freedom of Information Act request “to obtain the full FCC complaint against Marriott to gain a complete understanding of the FCC’s concerns.” The San Diego Convention Center is also reviewing its policies and reaching out to the FCC for clarification, as it is a public entity and not a private operator. “But given all the cyber-attacks and security issues today, we are not allowing people to bring in their own networks,” stated Carol Wallace, CEO. “They will have to work with our provider, whom we have vetted.”

Convention Industry Council’s APEX Workgroup on Internet Bandwidth and Connectivity is already discussing the ramifications of this case, reported CEO Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP. You can provide feedback or questions to the workgroup through Kasey Connors, director of programs and services, who oversees the APEX Initiative.

“Anything that can be done to help event organizers manage, or ideally reduce, Wi-Fi costs is a major positive for the face-to-face business,” summed up Chris Brown, executive vice president, conventions and business operations, National Association of Broadcasters. — Maxine Golding

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