Free WiFi: an essential offering

It is hard to imagine a more extraordinary example of a major hotel chain getting it wrong, but that is what Marriott International managed to achieve last month when, to almost universal condemnation from customers and the media alike, it continued to argue that it was right to block the free provision of some WiFi hotspot services to customers.

The back story is that in early 2013 a participant at a function at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, reported to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the Marriott-run convention centre was stopping guests from linking to mobile hotspots using their own WiFi enabled devices. This involved the hotel in some way jamming access for those customers who were using the hotel’s conference facilities, while indicating at the same time that it was possible for them to log on to the hotel’s WiFi system for what reportedly was a very high fee.

The FCC said that this was unacceptable and that no hotel or public place should intentionally disable public hotspots while suggesting that users could pay a fee for access to a private network.

In response, Marriott said that it was trying to prevent cyber attacks, that it intended only to disable the personal WiFi of those attending conferences or conventions, and that its approach did not cover hotel rooms or lobbies where guests could connect freely.

In the end, Marriott paid a US$600,000 Federal fine for jamming WiFi services, said that it would stop the practice, claimed it would listen to its customers, and would not in future block guests at its convention centres from using their personal WiFi devices at any of its managed hotels.

But then, amazingly, Marriott together with the American Hotel and Lodging Association petitioned the FCC to reconsider its rules. The consequence was to bring yet more criticism from customers and representations to the FCC from global IT giants including Google and Microsoft who were opposed to the petition.

Marriott, presumably embarrassed, now says it will not try to block hotspot use anymore, but has not formally withdrawn its petition, leaving uncertainty as to what may happen at some future date.

Apart from the extraordinary short-sighted decision and public relations disaster, the chain’s decision to effectively take on a whole class of customers, irrespective of whether there really were cyber security issues involved or not, has drawn attention to the fact that hotel users are increasingly angered by any charge at all for WiFi; regarding it as an out of touch attempt by hotels to find a way of charging often outrageous sums for a service that everyone knows the real cost of, and which ought to be a built into core operating costs.

For almost all travellers, WiFi is as essential as having freshly laundered towels in the bathroom. Being able to communicate for business reasons or with family and friends has become an everyday life component.

Moreover, the rapacious approach by the major telecommunications providers and networks in relation to roaming charges is making the traditional use of mobile phones less viable, just at the moment when in North America, Europe and parts of the Caribbean, chains of coffee shops, bars, and many airports, have begun to provide WiFi services for free; or at the most for the price of a cup of coffee or a beer.

Somewhere along the line some hotel chains appear to have lost the plot.

Personally, I now make a point of only staying at hotels where the basic WiFi is free or linked to a loyalty card.

Marriott and other chains, or any other hotel in the Caribbean or elsewhere that cannot understand the need when travelling for visitors to be able to communicate at no additional cost, deserve to see customers vote with their feet by staying elsewhere.