Hotel Goes Medieval on Personal Data Access

Network Virtualization

How many of you “road warriors” out there have to pay for hotel Wi-Fi?  How many of you take your own personal MiFi out on the road with you because of the exorbitant charges that the mainstream hotel chains charge? (For example, $22 per night for the Hilton in Lyon, or $10.95 a day for the Sheraton in Seattle.) Now, if I were getting 100mbs speeds, I might not be too upset at these costs. But the fact is, you are not: you are lucky to get dialup speeds circa pre-millennium. This is why, especially with the move to the higher data speeds that 4G provides, it is becoming more popular to use your mobile device as a wireless hotspot, or to take your own MiFi on your road trip. A MiFi is a personal Wi-Fi that uses a 3G or 4G signal to route data to the Internet.

Why am I talking about this? Well, currently, a major international hotel chain, which shall remain nameless—OK, it’s Marriot—is in a bit of a kerfuffle over using FCC-approved tools to block the signals of personal hotspots, forcing its patrons to use its often-inferior, hotel-based Wi-Fi product.

If fact, the company went so far as to pay the FCC $600,000 to make an issue go away. You would hope that that would have been the end of the issue, but no. Marriot is now actually petitioning the FCC to allow it to legally block MiFi hotspots.

“What?,” I hear you shout. “That’s it: I’m never staying there again!” But wait: stop and think a minute. Now, the libertarian in me bristles at this flagrant infringement on my rights. I have paid for my MiFi and 4G data plan, and I am going to use it. But let’s have a look at this from another perspective:

The “free” and unlicensed Wi-Fi zone is 2.4GHz UHF, or 5GHz SHF. This is a small band to squeeze your device into when the area is congested. The US, for example, only has eleven channels in this band. Europe is slightly better, with thirteen, and Japan has fourteen. Now, this does not mean that there are eleven, thirteen, or fourteen individual channels, dependent on country, as each Wi-Fi signal occupies five of these channels, causing overlaps. Not an issue per say, but it can lead to quicker congestion. Fortunately, the range of an average MiFi device is small: well, they are supposed to be personal. But when I say small, twenty-five to thirty meters is quite a significant distance, which is eighty-two to ninety-nine feet in old money.

Considering that a Wi-Fi signal can interfere with other electronic devices or Wi-Fi devices, this can cause issues. This is aggravated by the fact that many Wi-Fi devices default to the same channel on startup, and the majority of users do not do any extra configuration past initial setup. (I, too, have been known to do this at times: sometimes it is just important to get something up and running). This disruption is more noticeable on neighboring channels, and  can prevent access or interfere with other devices’ use of other access points. This can become a problem in high-density areas, such as large apartment complexes or office buildings with many Wi-Fi access points.

Here, we get to the crux of the issue. You can disrupt other users’ use of their service with with your MiFi device. Benefiting yourself, you can affect the experience of people using the hotel Wi-Fi.

This is what Marriot is saying is its reason for its blocking of personal hotspots. Now, this would sit a little better on my palette if access to its in-room Wi-Fi did not cost a small mortgage and a 1980s surfing experience, complete with jerky video and broken VOIP audio that makes the callers sound like a Norman Collier broken microphone act.

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