whose airwaves are they? Internet connectivity is becoming more and more of a “must” for all of us, all the time, including when we’re on the road, in the air or even at sea. Travel providers are scrambling to accommodate us; these days we can VPN into our work computers at 35,000 feet with in-flight Wi-Fi or log onto Facebook to post photos of our fun times from a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean. And it’s rare today to find a hotel in the western world that doesn’t offer Internet access.

Sometimes an Internet connection is a free perk that comes with the room. Other times, you have to pay an extra charge, anywhere from $5 to $15 per day is typical.  Oddly enough, it seems the more you pay for the hotel room itself, the more likely you’ll be charged extra for Internet service.

Thanks to another technology trend, the increasing popularity of smart phones with fast 4G data connections and the ability to be configured as mobile “hot spots,” many of us have been able to forego paying those hotel Internet fees. We simply turn on the carrier’s hot spot feature or fire up a Wi-Fi tethering app such as FoxFi and connect our laptops to the phone’s 4G service. Of course, for those who aren’t grandfathered into an unlimited data plan, that usage counts toward your monthly allotment, but it’s still often less expensive than the hotel’s service even if you have to pay a coverage charge.

It comes as no surprise that hotels aren’t thrilled about this practice, since charging for Internet connectivity is a significant revenue-enhancer for those that do it.  What did take many smart phone users by surprise was when some hotels decided to try to ban them from using their own paid-for hot spots, forcing them to buy the (usually slower and less reliable) hotel Wi-Fi if they wanted to access the Internet on hotel premises.

Is this a matter of property rights? Should hotels be able to control all wireless networking within their “airspace?” Should theaters be able to jam cell phone signals to prevent customers from being disturbed by others’ ringing phones (or conversations) during movies? Or should device owners who pay for service be able to take that service with them wherever they go (insofar as the service provider has coverage)?

Last year, Marriott was fined $600,000 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for blocking the Wi-Fi hotspots of guests staying at their hotels. Then they turned around and filed a petition asking the agency to change the rules to give them the right to jam wireless communications on their premises. Why would a hotel do this? Apparently they really, really want you to pay for their Internet service – although of course the hotels will argue that it’s a security issue.

Google, Microsoft and the CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents mobile phone services providers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and many other smaller carriers) quickly came out on the other side of the issue, opposing the changes.

Hotels that want to shut down users’ “rogue” Wi-Fi networks aren’t the only entities that have sought, over the years, to block electronic communications signals on their premises, although they’re currently the ones in the limelight. Way back in 2006, movie theater owners were talking about blocking cell phone signals to “improve the cinema experience,” on the premise that they should be able to use signal jamming technology to prevent customers from being disrupted (or disrupting others) during a movie. The FCC has not agreed; their web site states unequivocally that the public safety risk posed by signal jamming devices outweighs the interests of a business owner in silencing annoying phone calls on their premises.

It’s not just businesses that want to jam signals. There’s a brisk market in small portable signal jammers for individuals who want to “discreetly create a quiet zone” around themselves – even though such sale is illegal. The FCC has issued citations to violators, but a quick Internet search will reveal that there are still plenty of the devices easily available.

Marriott probably didn’t expect all the backlash they got. Almost 100 percent of the commentary I saw was negative. According to the FCC, 38 of the 39 letters they received on the topic were likewise opposed and the other was neutral or off-topic. Digital natives, in particular, are not amenable to the idea of anyone standing between them and their Internet connection and neither are the technology giants that provide the services and content that they access.

Marriott first backed down on December 30 with the statement that they could not block personal mobile hot spots in the guest rooms but wanted to do so in their conference facilities. Now the company seems to have reconsidered the issue again in light of all the bad publicity their action was bringing, and in January they announced that they were “listening to their customers” and would give up completely on their effort to be allowed to block personal Wi-Fi hot spots.

That’s good news for all of us globe-trotting Internet junkies, but it brings up an interesting issue that goes beyond this one ill-fated money-grabbing attempt by one hotel chain. Exactly who owns the air space through which radio signals travel, when that space is on or above privately owned property? It’s something to which many of us have never given much thought, but it bears thinking.

Officially, the public airwaves belong to, well, the public – at least in theory. According to one of the co-authors of the Radio Act of 1927, the government doesn’t own the frequencies; it only has the authority to regulate the use.  The ever-increasing extent of that regulation has been a matter of hot debate.

Marriott’s decision feels like a victory to those of us who want to be able to use the technologies and services we buy when we’re traveling, but the underlying question is far from settled.  And here’s something else to ponder: Should the rules be the same for personal domiciles as for businesses that are open to the public? Should I have the right to block “foreign” wireless signals or, indeed, cell phone signals, in my home and surrounding property? Do we need a new kind of “castle law” to address that?

How do you balance private property rights with the right to use those public airwaves no matter where you are? I don’t have the answers, but I do think there are going to be more questions as we journey into a future where the Internet becomes an even bigger part of our lives than it is today.

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