“Consumers are tired of being taken advantage of by hotels and convention centers that block their personal Wi-Fi connections,” Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, said in a statement. “This disturbing practice must come to an end. It is patently unlawful for any company to maliciously block FCC-approved Wi-Fi connections.”
The FCC has been clamping down on the obstruction of personal Wi-Fi hot spots, often a ploy to get guests to pay for a property’s wireless Internet. At the Baltimore Convention Center, for example, the commission said M.C. Dean charges exhibitors and visitors as much as $1,095 per event for Internet access.
The commission began investigating M.C. Dean last year after it received a complaint that the company, the sole Internet provider for the convention center, was blocking guests from establishing personal Wi-Fi hotspots. Further investigation found that similar obstructions had taken place on dozens of occasions in the last year, the FCC said.
During the investigation, the FCC says M.C. Dean admitted to obstructing Wi-Fi hotspots using “Auto Block Mode” on its Wi-Fi system. The company was charged with violating the FCC’s Communications Act by maliciously interfering with or causing interference to lawful Wi-Fi hotspots.
A spokeswoman for M.C. Dean said the company plans to challenge the FCC’s decision.
“M.C. Dean believes that [the] action by the Enforcement Bureau is legally and factually flawed,” Sharon Hawkins, marketing director for M.C. Dean, said in an e-mail. “M.C. Dean is being accused of violating federal law by using Wi-Fi network management equipment, even though the FCC expressly authorized this equipment and M.C. Dean operated the equipment consistent with the FCC’s rules.”
“As a matter of due process, the FCC is required to provide regulated parties with notice of what is required of them so they may act accordingly – notice that the FCC utterly failed to provide here,” she continued.
Hilton, which oversees 550 hotels and resorts around the world, is the subject of an ongoing investigation related to similar charges. The FCC on Monday ordered Hilton to immediately provide information and documents pertaining to its Wi-Fi management practices and warned that the company may face a significantly higher fine if it does not comply. The hotel company has 30 days to respond.
The FCC said it received a customer complaint last summer alleging that the Hilton Anaheim blocked visitors’ Wi-Fi hot spots unless they paid a $500 fee to access the hotel’s Internet last fall. In November 2014, the commission asked Hilton to provide information about Wi-Fi management practices at its U.S. properties.
“After nearly one year, Hilton has failed to provide the requested information for the vast majority of its properties,” the FCC said.
Hilton, however, says it has complied with the FCC’s requests and that company policy prohibits hotels from blocking Wi-Fi access.
“We strongly disagree with the decision by the FCC Enforcement Bureau,” a Hilton spokesman said by e-mail. “Throughout this inquiry, we have cooperated with the FCC, providing extensive background and details in a timely and efficient manner. We believe that the FCC has no basis for vastly expanding the initial inquiry based on a single complaint at a single Hilton hotel.”
Two other companies also have faced fines for similar obstructions in the last year. In November 2014, the FCC fined Bethesda-based Marriott International $600,000 for blocking Wi-Fi at its Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville. In August, Smart City Holdings, a Las Vegas-based Internet provider for conventions and meeting centers, received a $750,000 fine for similar obstructions.