I fear that many of my professional WLAN colleagues and industry watchers are wearing blinders when it comes to the Marriott issue. Of course I’m talking about the FCC finding fault with the hotel chain for employing wireless containment measures against customers who would rather use their own Mi-Fi devices than pay for the hotel’s wireless network service, and Marriott’s subsequent request for the FCC’s blessings to continue the activity (which is being studied now). On the surface, it’s hard to be sympathetic to any hotel that charges for Wi-Fi, but this is far from a simple issue, and I’m here to tell you that the time is right for regulatory, technical, and behavioral change. Read on, and I have little doubt that this will likely ruffle at least a few feathers.
The point of this article goes beyond the Marriott buzz, but let’s look at that a just little closer first.
“No hotel should be CHARGING for Wi-Fi anymore! It’s such a ubiquitous expectation, Wi-Fi should be as free as elevator service!” Oh really? According to who- people that do wireless and travel a lot? Why is it OK for airlines to charge for Wi-Fi, but not hotels? When I stay at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, I am PISSED that they charge $4 for a cup of instant coffee and $7 for a package of a few busted up cookies the size of rabbit turds in my room. But they get away with it, and I’m welcome to stay elsewhere if it bothers me that much. The same can be said with the hotel situation- some give Wi-Fi away, and others charge. And yes, often the for-fee WLAN service really sucks. But no one says you MUST stay in these places. There are two sentiments I want you take away here: first, every business has the right to charge whatever they want for any service, and we can take our business elsewhere if we don’t like it. Secondly- I actually agree that it’s bad business for hotels to charge for Wi-Fi, and agree that people just “expect it” by now when it comes to Wi-Fi everywhere. That notion of “just expecting” a service becomes even more important here in a bit, so please keep it handy.
Why did the Marriott do what they did? Why do other business do the same thing?
In the case of Marriott, it seems like they are working different angles- they blocked customer Wi-Fi to herd people over to their expensive in-house service. They did it for the clients’ own good, because it’s pretty easy for anyone to pop up a Pineapple and trick users into falling for bad Wi-Fi juju. But Marriott also blocked clients’ Mi-Fi devices because their WLAN vendor built the capability into the WLAN management tool and the WLAN industry has created a state of mind where using these tools for exactly what Marriott did is acceptable. Except it turns out that it’s not acceptable. Go figure.
“Wi-Fi works in unlicensed spectrum. Everyone can interfere and use their own stuff anywhere they like and your Wi-Fi can just deal with that because the FCC regs say so and if you don’t like that then it’s just tough tittie for you.”
Uh, okay. Sure, Wi-Fi works in unlicensed spectrum. That’s what makes it so inexpensive to buy and deploy- which is great. It’s also what makes issues like Marriott so contentious. And here’s where I implore you to stop focusing on Marriott and look at the bigger WLAN picture. Hospitals are the easy one, because nothing makes a point like a loved one dying. Under current FCC regs and the “Marriott Mentality”, I can bring my Mi-Fi into the hospital and pop it to life regardless of the impact on wireless medical equipment. So can any other visitor with a Mi-Fi; they’re all covered by the same FCC regs. Forget “hospital policy”- Marriott got boned for their own policy, and we’re all covered by the same FCC regs.
More environments are ditching legacy phones and going to the likes of Microsoft Lync with heavy emphasis on WLAN use. In my own environment, I have Wi-Fi door locks, lab monitoring equipment, cameras, event and retail barcode scanners, and a number of other critical or quazi-critical utility devices running on a multi-million dollar WLAN. Those of us USING wireless everyday for both huge client access numbers and an increasingly IOT-feeling compliment of utilities have to look at Marriott and scratch our heads. Are we really that powerless to protect our WLAN investments? I get that others not in the same demographic can easily and smugly say “well, then you shouldn’t be using wireless for all this stuff.” To them I say…yeah, and you should pull your heads out of wherever they might be inserted and to get with the times. The same FCC that is studying the Marriott thing has had a hand in the explosive growth in business WLAN, where many of us EXPECT (remember, I asked you keep that thought handy) to be able to preserve the performance of our own carefully designed Wi-Fi environments within our own borders.
Why invest in training, surveys, good design, and the best components if at any given time in any of our cells anyone can locally DOS our networks with “legal” hardware?
If you haven’t noticed, we’re collectively at a stupid, unsustainable place.
I’ve gotten that call from the stadium in the middle of the game when several Mi-Fi devices were laying waste to the robust Wi-Fi we have for the press. I’ve seen my own network interfere with Mi-Fi devices used by the Red Cross during blood drives to the point where they needed to use another technology. It happens, especially in dense WLAN environments, and the Mi-Fi makers own a lot of the problem. These devices are heavily marketed by Verizon and AT&T, they fire up out of the box on idiotic channels. People who use Mi-Fi fall in love with the devices, and Mi-Fi becomes their de facto way of connecting their laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc. For many, it matters not whether there is decent, free wireless designed to meet their needs in a given location- their Mi-Fi is easy, comfortable, and something they own. And there is no technical etiquette training provided with their purchase.
I’ve heard the claims of “c’mon, Wi-Fi should be resilient enough to tolerate the occasional Mi-Fi device.” Perhaps, and it all depends on the environment and the number of these popular devices that show up.
So what’s next? How does this whole mess get reconciled?
Here’s part of the answer, from my friend Jake Snyder:
Right on, Jake. Here’s the whole fix, according to me:
- Somehow, Mi-Fi needs to be rethought to be friendlier to business WLAN- Let’s start with Novatel explaining why everything has to be on channel 2 or 4 or 9
- The FCC has to take a nuanced, business friendly approach to protecting prod WLAN environments, or to let environments protect themselves
- If the FCC says that the tools Marriott used are not legal, then these tools need to be gutted out of WLAN management frameworks and not marketed as features
- Yes, hotels and other venues need to provide good FREE Wi-Fi, and the WLAN industry needs to come up with a way to provide SECURE guest Wi-Fi (Hotspot 2.0 ain’t going anywhere, sorry)
- It’s probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but Mi-Fi users should get some sort of education at time of purchase about the impact their devices potentially have on WLANs that they operate in the middle of
Marriott is just the tip of the iceberg. If we (all parties) don’t face the underlying factors that have brought us to the point where the FCC is reviewing the current status quo, nothing will get “fixed”.
Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you- not just your opinion, but what your role in Wi-Fi is.