FCC Fines Marriott for Jamming Wifi

When I was planning the Humanism at Work conference this summer, I asked the Hilton about getting a 5 mbps wifi stream so we could livestream it. The cost? $5500 for a day and a half. So we decided to just let people use their cell phones instead. At the Marriott, apparently, they would have jammed the signal to force us to spend the money.

The Marriott-run Gaylord Opryland resort in Nashville was faced with a dilemma. Like all hotels and exhibition centers, it charges exhibitors and conference organizers exorbitant amounts for Internet access on trade-show floors, as well as nightly fees for guests. Nearly all conference centers charge thousands of dollars for a few days of access, per exhibitor, and all they get is a couple of megabits per second at their booth. Google for the price sheets: you’ll need an emesis bag handy.

Thanks to fast cellular networks and portable WiFi hotspots, though, these halls are losing their extortionate edge. A carryover from the days of a captive audience who had no other choice, the wheeze was always factored in as a cost of participating in trade shows and other events. Now, however, the 4G LTE standard–whose frequency range penetrates buildings far better than most older cellular technologies–offers data rates in the tens of Mbps.

The Gaylord Opryland came up with a clever plan. Some level of hotel management understood that its Wi-Fi intrusion-mitigation system came with a feature that could kick people off networks — and not just their own. So, as the FCC explains in a press release and consent order [PDF] released today, Marriott staff at the facility made it impossible for people in the vicinity to use personal hotspots, portable routers, and the like. This is a big no-no: a violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act. A clever visitor to the convention center — likely someone irritated at being knocked off his portable router over and over again — discovered the deauth behavior and reported it in March 2013 to the FCC.

The FCC has fined the Marriott $600,000 for this, which is peanuts for them.

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  • D. C. Sessions

    Just the cost of doing business.

    When I was chairman of a trade group, we set up local wifi networks for the conference room. Not Internet access, just local network so that we could share working documents etc. I’m not sure who it was (apparently in some other committee) who found out the hard way that you had to make arrangements to do even that, but not long before I left the committee we started including a “no, you won’t fuck with our local network” clause in our conference hotel RFPs.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Look, it’s just the Invisible Hand of the Free Market in action. If this other technology is so great then why aren’t people staying at the Marriott using it?

    Besides, outside WiFi conflicts with Marriott Inc’s closely held religious belief that their customers shouldn’t have it.

  • Sastra

    The FCC has fined the Marriott $600,000 for this, which is peanuts for them.

    Ah, but the negative publicity? Priceless.

  • http://artk.typepad.com ArtK

    WiFi is a big revenue center for these places. On average, I get charged about $10/day, but I’ve seen it as high as $17 for individual use. I’m sure that covers the amortized cost of the hardware, installation and broadband connection needed to support it. Probably covers it by an order of magnitude at least. The biggest expense is going to be running CAT-5 or CAT-6 cable to all of the access points. WiFi access points are cheap — commodity hardware now.

  • dingojack

    Does the Gaylord Opryland have a Gay Lobby?

    Ok, Ok — no need for security, I’ll see myself out.

    😉 Dingo

  • eric

    WiFi is a big revenue center for these places. On average, I get charged about $10/day, but I’ve seen it as high as $17 for individual use. I’m sure that covers the amortized cost of the hardware, installation and broadband connection needed to support it.

    First, most hotels are still reaping the benefits of those private networks for most their business, since it’s likely only at a conference where poeple are going to set up hotspots etc. During regular hotel use, I doubt the disparate hotel goers would ever bother doing such a thing.

    Secondly, the FCC’s ban on jamming is a lot older than the internet. They had to know they couldn’t jam use of other private signals as they were setting it up, because they were never allowed to jam public radio, which dates back to the 1920s. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy about them spending money to try and monopolize some area of service that they’ve known for almost a century the government would never let them monopolize.

  • Trebuchet

    Fits right in with all the charges for parking, for using the pool, etc., etc, etc. Which are found exclusively at the more expensive variety of hotels. Moderately priced ones are happy to have you as a customer and will even give you a free “breakfast”. For some definitions of “breakfast”.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Some history on this:

    The upscale hotels were the first ones to have Internet access, and they did it the same way they did telephone access to the rooms: they contracted it out to companies that took care of the provisioning, metering, etc. Much neater than having to actually invest in equipment and staffing that has nothing to do with their core business of hospitality (FWIW, parking and such are often handled the same way.)

    Well, they’re still doing it that way and in at least the cases I’ve looked into they’re contractually bound to protect their service providers’ revenue stream: no competition, etc. If they could, they’d block cell phones too but either were smart enough to see a loser from the git-go or got smacked down long ago. Chances are pretty fair that Marriott didn’t actually make any money on this, it all went to the parasitic provider.

    The funny part is that the budget outfits long since included unlimited wifi in their room rates — no special skills or equipment required, too cheap to meter. Hilton, Marriott, and the like are just used to padding the bill and getting away with it that they just can’t get the concept that it would be more profitable not to.

  • The Other Lance

    Internet access in conference centers is a total scam.

    I volunteer at my church’s (yes, that dirty word) annual meeting doing live video streaming of our business meetings. Usually, we have to pay the conference centerpay thousands to tens of thousands each year for a wired connection with enough bandwidth to serve our needs. Two years ago we were at a conference center that didn’t have a mandatory internet access partner. The center referred us to outside providers and we ended up getting three separate 10up/10down network drops for about $130/week per connection!

    Sadly, that conference center was in the process of changing hands at that time and the new owners/operators were going to use a mandatory internet provider policy. 😐

  • Crimson Clupeidae

    I wonder if non-hotel convention centers also jam signals. I’ve been to a few that I suspected of such, since the buildings weren’t particularly large/thick or had any other noticeable features that would make me think they would block signals.

    The convention center in Phoenix, Az comes to mind, specifically.

  • whheydt

    About the charges for in-room access… Be careful with it because hotels will charge not only per day, but per MAC address as well….on the same connection.

    The best way to deal with this is to start by connecting your own router. Then the hotel only sees a single MAC address (that of the router) and will charge based on that, rather than for each and every device connected behind the router. (It’s better security, too.)

    The Marriott where a group of us run a ‘con has free WiFi in the hotel lobby. What I’m planning to set up next year is a router with a client access device on the WAN side of the router so all the very small (Raspberry Pis and Cubieboards) behind the router can get their NTP data.

  • David C Brayton

    Yeah, I find it funny that the cheap hotels have free internet but the fancy hotels still charge by the day for it.

    I’ve negotiated a lot of agreements on behalf of my clients with hotels / convention centers and those agreements are horrendously bad agreements vis-a-vis the guest. But, the venues are always happy to negotiate.

  • eric

    I wonder if non-hotel convention centers also jam signals.

    In the US, all (intentional) RF jamming is illegal. That doesn’t necessarily mean the answer to your question is “no,” but it means it’s probably a “no.”

    As somene who works in a standard office building, 10 feet from a big plate glass window, yet has the most wretchedly bad signal strength I’ve ever experienced, I feel safe in saying the problem you may have experienced in some buildings is almost certainly due to architecture, not jammers.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    eric “As somene who works in a standard office building, 10 feet from a big plate glass window, yet has the most wretchedly bad signal strength I’ve ever experienced, I feel safe in saying the problem you may have experienced in some buildings is almost certainly due to architecture, not jammers.”

    Architecture is probably Jammers most underrated album. From Ever Experienced to Signal Strength it’s filled with great track after great track (except for Big Plate Glass Window which, at 22 minutes of operatic, atmospheric pretentiousness, is simply too much, even by Prog Rock standards).

  • dave

    In the US, all (intentional) RF jamming is illegal.

    True, but not strictly relevant. It is possible to “break” a wifi network not by jamming it, but by communicating with it. In laymans terms, there is a command that is part of the wifi protocol that tells a client to drop out and re associate, by sending such a command every time you see an association handshake, you will have effectively made the wifi network useless. But since this is done through properly licensed standard wifi transmitters, you have not broken the FCC rules. This is commonly done by corporations that are trying to maintain a secure environment. (According to the article this was a feature of their Wifi intrusion management system. Its actually a fairly common feature of WIPSystems.) Note that this will affect wifi only. So your phone will still have its 4G service and work fine, but your laptop cant connect to the phone acting as a hotspot.

    As to the legality of this, my company does this at our facilities. Both the FBI and another government agency are fully aware of this and neither has expressed any concern. In fact, they have both been rather approving, somewhat unsurprising given the criticallity of the data we handle.. I imagine the problem with Marriott doing this is due to the fact that since they are charging for network service, they are essentially sabotaging their competition.

  • whheydt

    Something to note… Marriott didn’t actually “jam” the signals. They had equipment that sent “deauth” packets that caused devices on the private hotspots to drop the connection. They *flooded* the facility with “deauth” packets.

    I am given to understand that the newer WiFi standards (like 802.11ac) will reject deauth packets that aren’t coming from a device properly connected to the base station. In that case, the “deauth” packets would be ignored, though they would probably still interfere (which is illegal) with the legitimate traffic on that wireless LAN.

    (Basically, and unsurprisingly, the major media have the story correct in gross, but wrong in the technical details.)

  • whheydt

    Re: dave @ #15…

    If the data you’re handling is that sensitive, I’m surprised that the three letter agencies let you have WiFi on prem at all, regardless of whether you used deauth floods or not.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    They *flooded* the facility with “deauth” packets.

    You mean it was a gift?!

    Free deauth packets with every lease!! Don’t look a gift denial of service packet in the mouth. Etc.

  • dave

    Re whheydt@17

    We dont. We have one “approved” wifi network that is not connected to our infrastructure, only to the internet through a separate firewall, along with normal dlp, ids, content filtering and access logging. This is the network that is available to the auditors, sales people, C-suite and other useless types, and only after approval. We use deauth spoofing to prevent anyone from using any other wifi network or setting up their own, that we cannot watch.

  • Trebuchet

    They *flooded* the facility with “deauth” packets.

    And probably charged the conferences a per-packet fee, to boot.

  • http://mostlyrational.net tacitus

    Yeah, I find it funny that the cheap hotels have free internet but the fancy hotels still charge by the day for it.

    Probably because the expensive hotels have far more corporate types there on business, on expenses, and are thus far less sensitive to prices.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Just imagine if they set up such a blocking system at a Jedi convention, and the hue and cry as attendees brought out their light sabers to take down the Deauth Star.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    “FCC Fines Marriott for Jamming Wifi”

    Gosh, their other for profit enterprise–teh porn–they had to dump that too!