Hilton the latest company facing fines in Wi-Fi blocking inquiry

In late 2014, select hotels came under fire for blocking guests from using their own Wi-Fi when on property. Marriott International was the first company to take the heat, and was also the first to back down after paying a $600,000 fine following complaints.

Though fines were levied in January for the practice, Hilton Worldwide is now facing Federal Communications Commission charges that it, too, blocked guest Wi-Fi hotspots. According to Fortune, Hilton may face a $25,000 fine for, as the commission says, "apparently willfully and repeatedly violating a commission order by failing to respond to the bureau’s letter of inquiry and obstructing the Bureau’s investigation into whether Hilton willfully interferes with consumer Wi-Fi devices in Hilton-brand hotel and resort properties across the United States."

CNN reported that the FCC sent Hilton a letter of inquiry in November 2014, asking the company for information regarding its activities in regards to blocking Wi-Fi. The FCC says that Hilton failed to provide responses for "the vast majority of properties" even a year later.

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"Hotel guests deserve to have their Wi-Fi blocking complaints investigated by the Commission," Travis LeBlanc, head of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, told CNN. "To permit any company to unilaterally redefine the scope of our investigation would undermine the independent search for the truth and the due administration of the law."

Hilton voiced its disagreement with the FCC's decision, pointing to an internal policy at Hilton that prohibits blocking Wi-Fi at its hotels.

"Throughout this inquiry, we have cooperated with the FCC, providing extensive background and details in a timely and efficient manner," a Hilton Worldwide spokesman said in a statement. "We believe that the FCC has no basis for vastly expanding the initial inquiry based on a single complaint at a single Hilton hotel."

Hotels invest millions of dollars per property each year updating their bandwidth capacity to meet rising guest demands, and many of them offer a tiered service. Because of that, it is considered advantageous for hotels to have guests use, and sometimes pay for, their Wi-Fi. However, a guest with a portable hotspot can create his or her own Wi-Fi network, sidestepping the network run by the hotel.

A notice from the FCC, released in January 2015, was a concrete statement declaring Wi-Fi blocking illegal. Since then, millions of dollars in fines have been served to companies for blocking guest Wi-Fi access. In August, trade show and convention telecom services provider Smart City Holdings received a $750,000 fine for blocking Wi-Fi at multiple locations, and a $718,000 fine is being proposed for system integrations firm M.C. Dean for allegedly blocking Wi-Fi at the Baltimore Convention Center. 

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