The Future of Free Hotel Wi-Fi

By Britton Thomas, January 9, 2015

First, the good news: Many major hotel chains are taking the price tag off Wi-Fi service in guest rooms in 2015. InterContinental Hotels started the trend last year, and other major chains are following suit in 2015.

Marriott rewards members can browse the Web for free starting Jan. 15, and Starwood Hotels are providing free Wi-Fi beginning Feb. 2—both with the stipulation that guests must book directly through the hotel. And in February, Hyatt Hotels will begin providing Internet gratis to all guests.

But the future of free Internet in meeting spaces is less clear. In October, Marriott was fined $600,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for blocking the use of personal Wi-Fi hotspots—a way for guests to circumvent Internet fees—at the Gaylord Opryland resort in Nashville. Marriott agreed to pay the fine, but the corporation issued a statement citing security concerns as justification for the blockage.

Now Marriott and the American Hotel & Lodging Association are petitioning the FCC for clarification on whether or not it is legal to disable personal wireless hotspots. In a statement, Marriott stressed that access to Wi-Fi in guest rooms and lobby areas will not be limited, and pointed out that cyber attacks on personal wireless networks are increasingly common.

While security concerns may prove to be valid, critics say it’s hard to overlook the financial aspect of lost Wi-Fi revenue. “Hotels make a lot of money, particularly from the leasing of convention Wi-Fi,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, told The Wall Street Journal.

Marriott and AHLA aren’t the only entities with an interest in this clarification. Hilton Worldwide has already submitted a comment to the FCC in support of Marriott’s stance, and the FCC’s ruling should reverberate throughout the hospitality industry. A timetable for the ruling is unknown.

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