Professional London-based audio and tech geek



Opinion: Marriott & others wishing to block “personal” WiFi hotspots

Even though I’m firmly based in the UK, I’m somewhat concerned to see plans by the Marriott chain, among others in the US, applying to the FCC for permission to allow blocking of “personal wifi hotspots” in certain corporate areas of their facilities. I’m not going to go into the technicalities of how this might be done, but some articles here from The Register give some (perhaps some slightly baised) insight:

In theory, and in their defence, I can see why it might be desirable to the hotel chains and their customers. Nobody paying for a Wifi service wants it to be interrupted, and so anything that can be done to preserve it in a critical area is a Good Thing [tm]. The problem here is both in the message it sends, and also in the people it unintentionally affects, especially if there’s little or no definition that separates a “personal hotspot” (someone tethering their mobile phone to their iPad to look up Twitter feeds or similar) from a functional wifi network that a contractor might have legitimate reasons to bring along as a tool to assist them in what they’re being paid to do in that same space. Let me explain by setting a scene:

Imagine that you’re a sound or AV contractor, brought in to support an event in one of these corporate spaces. These industries being what they are now, you likely have one or more devices in your arsenal that either require or are very much more useful with Wifi, either for Internet connectivity (relatively rare still, in my experience), or for direct on-site control with a remote control application running on something like an iPad or Android tablet. And there are likely more on the way.

Such systems being what they are, you likely find with experience, as I have, that the systems only work well together when configured with one specific brand and even model of wifi access point/router, so you cable that into your rack so that wherever you go, your wifi network name and IP range is always the same, and all you perhaps need to do is change the channel to better fit those around you so you (and others) get the most reliable connection and best available throughput. 

So you rock up at one of the sites where such blocking is in place, and everything stops working, so you grab the attention of a member of staff a the hotel and see what they can do. They point you to their on-site tech-support person, in the best-case scenario that they have one, and that this person is knowledgeable and sympathetic to your cause…

“Sorry guys, I know that this is a business device,” says the harrassed-looking tech-support person, “but you’ve got caught out as it’s being seen as a ‘personal wifi hotspot’. There’s nothing we can do. You’ll either need to connect everything to our network, which is THIS brand, or get your hardware control surface and some cables out of the truck and use that instead.”

“But your brand doesn’t play nicely with my kit, even though it’s all supposed to be standards-compliant. Don’t ask me why, it just isn’t. I don’t/can’t carry that extra 60lbs/30Kg of kit, I don’t need it anywhere else. Soooo, can’t you just…”

“Nope. Sorry, rules are rules.”

Now sure, we could waste time arguing that relying on wifi, venue-provides or not, for any event-critical functions is asking for trouble. Certainly, I find there’s nothing quite like a piece of physical copper or fibre cable running between my devices for reliability. However we look at it, until the wider industry accepts that using over-saturated and effectively consumer-grade wifi is a no-go, and creates a separate radio band and maybe even a licenced protocol (much like the UK’s PMSE system) away from “consumers” to increase reliability and available bandwidth, we’re stuck with what we have – the often all-too-sucky wifi – for the foreseeable future.

Others might argue “why not just have hotels and other venues make provisions?” Okay, good start, but two points on this:

1) how much provision should they make, and how should they do it? And how do we even define and hold them to it?

2) as the owner and operator of such sound and AV kit, would you trust your show/event to someone else’s network and all the risks that can entail? I personally choose not to, not least because I don’t want to have to configure numerous devices to talk to each other over someone else’s IP schema and to inadvertently be bandwidth-restricted by someone else’s careless, callous or plain unwitting action(s) at a crucial moment. 

Let’s be clear on why this stuff is important: when I’m working on-site, both my own and my client’s reputations are at stake, so in showtime anything outside mine or my client’s direct control is a risk we’d rather not be responsible for without good clear disclaimers covering our backsides. And even then, potential reputation damage means we’d want to steer clear of that kind of risk anyways. Just like taking life and car insurance doesn’t lead a responsible person to drive everywhere 30mph faster than they otherwise would, simply because they know they’re covered if someone else runs out of talent on a critical apex and totals both cars and occupants.

So the message currently being sent seems to be “we want our clients to pay for everything, and to not have that paid service (and therefore income stream) interrupted, and consequences be damned”. Perhaps the finer details have indeed been thought through, but if nobody asks the question (I have), how do we know?

Technology is creating some amazing solutions in live events, that have real potential to not only make lives easier for those of us doing real work there, but also to save a lot of real mass being lugged in vehicles the world over when much smaller and lighter solutions can be deployed. It would be a shame to have to put the brakes on that because a few shareholders of a few large chain hotels end up changing the landscape by way of “thought leadership”, and this silly idea ends up spreading.

And besides… When was the last time anyone connected to a public wifi service actually suffered because of other wifi networks popping up around the place? It’s actually never yet happened to me, perhaps because as an events-tech I never trust my shows and equipment to such networks, precisely because I roll-my-own so I know everything plays nicely together. But what are the other modes of failure I have seen?

  • Run out of IP addresses in the DHCP pool? Sure!  Even managed to do it myself to a bunch of users when I managed to underestimate the usage that one of my own networks would actually get.  Easily fixed because I use my own network, so I saw it happen and fixed the problem immediately on-site. How many other sites can say the same, even at say, Starbucks, or similar?
  • Managed WiFi zones that can’t smoothly hand over a device from one base station to another? Plenty!
    • Granted this can be tricky to manage well, because different client devices respond differently to the management methods implemented by different zone managers. I have experience of trying to do this well across numerous platforms and have yet to find a true one-size-fits-all solution, especially one that doesn’t interrupt a significant group of client devices in some way.
  • Run out of bandwidth for the number of connected users? Yup – this is a biggie, and it happens nearly every time.
    • In the real world, I’ve given up using public wifi (paid or not), simply because the majority of the times I use it, the bandwidth available simply isn’t enough to provide for the number of client devices (and their users) connected to it. So instead I revert to tethering to 3G or 4G mobile/cellphone networks instead.
    • Even abroad, my costings from traveling around the US in 2013 suggest it’s about 10x cheaper than equivalent WiFi costs, and 10x more reliable; not to mention that I can take the cheaper mobile/cell service with me wherever I go – the WiFi only works within the confines of the hotel or campus. The same metric applied in Italy in 2012. Uuuuuh, no-brainer then.

A key thing to note here is that in none of those highlighted cases am I even considering connecting valuable event-critical tools to such networks for mission-critical tasks – here I’m only talking about personal “holiday” usage; finding out more about the immediate world around me, mailing the odd photo to friends and family, checking email to keep on top of bills and any big family news.

So please, if you’re a hotel chain and considering this kind of plan, or an IT provider for a similar corporate planning a similar exercise, don’t even talk to me about this kind of revenue-generating exercise in the world of WiFi until you get your ducks in a row on these and other much more simple provisioning issues, okay?  If I’m going to pay 10x for a service that I can get elsewhere and carry with me wherever I go, then you’d better make it worth my while. And a big hint here is that you don’t do that by blocking me from using that 0.1x cost (vs yours) service that works. You do it by making your service WORTH 10x the cost of the other one. If you can’t, then perhaps something else is wrong, and it’s time to reassess the cost-benefit analysis.

“Yes” or “No” to AV? Ummmm…

So it’s the night before the big vote here in the UK, where we will vote on possibly the biggest political change in a generation. So which way should we vote?

Frankly I can’t decide. And that disturbs me, because I can normally form an opinion one way or the other on pretty much any subject. But the best I can do for this one is say ‘meh’.

In my view, neither side has actually presented a clear objective argument for or against their own cause. Or at least if they have, I’ve yet to hear that through the media.

The answer I think will come to me in the morning, where I’ll take a look at each campaign’s website and see which feels more right to me – but as it stands right now I’m going to have to seek out the location of those sites. On the one hand, I feel good about actively engaging with the issue. On the other hand, it seems rather sad to me that neither side has used the media enough to send out enough of a clear message for such pro-activeness to be unnecessary.

Perhaps one ironic outcome of tomorrow’s vote is that very few of us will have cared enough to seek information to form an informed view on the matter, so either they won’t vote, or will simply flip a coin for it with no thought towards the consequences.

I hope the right answer comes out. I just wish I could decide what *I* think that is and why. I fear there are too many others thinking the same…


Some more trains of thought have passed since writing the original post. Let me explain:

Maybe what we’re being asked to vote on tomorrow isn’t the core problem with politics in the UK. Maybe the problem is what we expect of our politicians to be doing when they come to power. Party politics has lead to an interesting disconnection between what is debated in Parliament (along with how and why), compared with what the average person on the street is concerned with. I wonder how a shift away from party politics towards individuals voted on the basis that their views most closely reflect those of their constituents might affect the politics and decision-making in this country. Would such a system produce better decisions? Would it lead to more engagement on key issues from the “man on the Clapham omnibus”? Would it lead to more satisfaction among the general population, knowing that their opinions are better informing key issues? Would voter apathy become a thing of the past? Would the country be more stable?

As I muse over this tonight and tomorrow morning, I have a hunch that saying “yes” to AV tomorrow might be the better way to introduce such significant changes to the politics and mindset of this country, and that voting “no” might serve to say that the UK population is happy with the party political system as it is – which would seem to me to be a logical fallacy, given how many people surrounding me seem overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the major parties swapping governmental power between them with very little positive net change, and with what so many around me seem to think is so little input from them.

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