Hotels Holding Wifi Access Ransom? What Does Your Business Continuity Plan Think of That?

Recent news that the FCC had fined Marriott $600,000 for blocking access to wifi at a conference center at one of their properties while charging companies up to $1,000 per device for that same access didn’t really strike me as that newsworthy.  In fact, I was surprised to find out that it was actually illegal because hotels and convention centers have been strictly controlling access to the internet since the mid ‘90’s.  I just never realized how illegal it was for them to do so.  Having managed seminars and the presence of various corporations at trade shows since before the consumer internet even existed, I well remember paying as much as $250/day for internet access, although in the earlier days obviously only hard-wire connections were available.

high-tailHowever, the size of the fine for a single-location violation and the fact the FCC also essentially put Marriott on probation (in addition to the fine, the chain also has to submit compliance updates with the FCC every three months for the next three years) means that the feds were taking the matter seriously.  And they should.  Hotels are in business to make money and they should make money.  But unlike charging per phone call made from your room in the days before cell phones (anybody else remember that?), disabling customers’ hotspot access and then charging them for the same access isn’t just making those customers pay twice for access, it’s doing so for a shockingly high rate.

Understandably, other chains high-tailed it to clarify that they either didn’t charge similar fees or that their internet access fees were ‘nominal.’  Mmmmkay.

More specifically to the needs of business continuity professionals, the practice of charging such high fees for internet access is yet another reason why it’s a bad idea for your BC plans to rely on your away teams to work in hotel conference rooms.  To begin with, conference rooms aren’t designed to act as long- or even medium-term work spaces.  Rental fees are usually fairly high, bathroom access can be an issue and room service or other onsite catering options are expensive.  Good luck finding a hotel that will let you bring food in from offsite; it just doesn’t happen.  Other potential concerns include security (is that wall between your war room and the driver’s ed class next door retractable?), privacy (we can’t keep the inquiring media out of a hotel’s public spaces) and the fact that, to hotels, their meeting rooms are like gold.  They have few of them, compared to guest rooms, and they’ll tell someone they’re sold out before they put the “wrong” (read: less profitable) group into that space.  Never mind the new airline-style fees that many of the chains are starting to tack on for what have always previously been considered standard or courtesy services.

Marriott responded to the fine by stating that they have “a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hot spots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft.”  The sentiment sounds respectable but to me it also sounds suspiciously like they were charging their guests for their own protection.  Cue the theme of The Godfather.

Am I saying that Marriott shouldn’t make a profit?  I am absolutely not saying that.  As with the provision of any type of infrastructure, there are labor and materials costs to recoup and they’re not running a charity.  And they do make a good point about wanting to ensure a quality internet experience for meeting attendees by controlling the access.  But they don’t own the air and the block-and-charge policy is financial double jeopardy for customers.  Just like you – I’m speaking specifically to you, the business continuity professional reading this – shouldn’t pay for a no-show or an early departure by one of your team members if your crisis deployment plans change, and they will, you shouldn’t have to pay double for internet access.

As an aside, blog co-editor and Continuity Housing Principal Michelle Lowther adds that, “We’d be remiss not to mention the fact that the hotel that got Marriott fined by the FCC, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Conference Center, will always have a special place in my heart for their outstanding response and management of their staff and guests during the Nashville floods of 2010 which devastated their hotel.  These people did it right.”

My take-away?  Marriott got off easy.  It was just luck of the draw that they were the ones that the FCC singled out among the many, many other chains who committed the same violation over such a long period of time.  For now they and the other hotel chains should cross their fingers that they don’t find themselves on the receiving end of a class action lawsuit filed by the tens of thousands of companies and organizations who paid through the nose for so long in order to access the internet.

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Continuity Housing helps companies enhance their business continuity plans by pre-arranging guaranteed housing and providing logistical support for mission-critical employees during disasters.  Subscribe to the Continuity Housing blog (in sidebar at right) and follow us on Twitter, on YouTube, on LinkedIn and on Facebook.  To subscribe to our mailing list and/or to find out about a free 30-minute consultation, let us know.

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