COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Don’t mess with my Internet

If there’s one thing that U.S. companies should have learned by now it’s not to tamper with anyone’s ability to go online. The FCC’s proposal of considering a fast lane and slow lane, proposed by Comcast, resulted in 6 million email and phone complaints.

The FCC has learned its lesson and is now expected to propose regulating the Internet much as it does a public utility, treating the Internet like phone service. That will mean the idea of charging for faster speeds goes out the window, and we have real net neutrality.

Rarely has an issue been so universally supported by the public, which would be up in arms against any attempt to tamper with that access. Access is now as important as a phone line, not a luxury, but a necessity.

Now, tampering with how we access the Internet has become an issue.

Marriott, one of the largest hotel chains with more than 4,000 properties around the world, recently created a firestorm when it tried to prevent some of its guests from using their phone to connect via Wi-Fi.

In early 2013, the Gaylord Opryland Marriott in Nashville blocked the Wi-Fi connections of guests attending a conference in an effort to make them buy the hotel’s own Wi-Fi services for a whopping $250 to $1,000 per person. The blocking prevented guests from using the hotspots on their cellular phones to create connections to their computers.

Marriott said it was done to improve their guests’ security, an excuse that made little sense and brought them even more ridicule. But most saw it as the first step on a slippery slope that would eventually lead Marriott to block its customers’ Wi-Fi in their rooms, forcing them to pay Marriott’s daily connection fees.

To its credit, the FCC responded quickly, warning Marriott to never let this happen again and fining them $600,000. Under the FCC consent decree, Marriott is prohibited from blocking Wi-Fi at any of its properties. The company must also file a statement of compliance each quarter for the next three years.

"The Communications Act prohibits anyone from interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “Marriott's request seeking the FCC's blessing to block guests' use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle."

"Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center," said Travis LeBlanc, FCC enforcement bureau chief.

Well, you’d think that Marriott would get the message and drop the idea. Instead, they dug themselves an even deeper hole. Along with their trade organization, the American Hospitality & Lodging Association, they petitioned the FCC to alter the Communications Act itself to let them block wireless access in their conference room areas.

They claimed once more that such a change was needed to prevent their guests from launching attacks against the hotel’s own network and steal other guest’s credit cards. But it’s actually easier to jeopardize security by allowing guests to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi then their own hot spot.

That action created more negative publicity, and Marriott faced protests from business travelers, including their elite members, and many companies in the high-tech industry, such as Motorola and Google.

Companies and individuals threatened to boycott Marriott. Some compared Marriott to Comcast, reputed to be the most hated company in America.

Marriott’s action also brought unwanted attention to a policy most travelers despise: paying from $13 to $15 a day for a Wi-Fi connection at their full-service hotels, while the hotel chains’ lower-cost properties offer it free. Even after paying the hotel’s Wi-Fi charge, the connection is barely faster than dial-up.

If all this seems like Groundhog Day, you probably remember how hotels once charged exorbitant rates to make phone calls from hotel rooms, even to toll-free numbers. The growth of cellphones put an end to those charges. Now cellphones with hotspots will put an end to Wi-Fi charges.

If Marriott failed to get the message, archrival Hyatt sent another one: Wi-Fi will now be free at all Hyatt Hotels. This is the future: free Internet access and access to a neutral Internet.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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