Calling all business owners: give your customers a wireless connection: wireless solutions for your business location.
This first of a two-part article is for business owners wanting a roadmap for setting up wireless networks your customers can use (also known as hot spots). I discuss some of the pros and the cons, and give a comprehensive review of commercial and free hot spot solutions. The second article (page 31) is for your potential customers. I discuss how to navigate the various hot spot service offerings and avoid potholes as a wireless consumer.
In these articles, I refer to "Wi-Fi" technology. Wi-Fi is the popular term for a wireless local area network, based on the 802.11 specification. There are four specifications in the family: 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. 802.11b, the most mature of the specifications, offers data speeds up to 11Mbps. 802.11a is gaining momentum and will offer even faster data speeds.
As a business owner or commercial property manager, you might be wondering why you should consider making your business Wi-Fi friendly. As more and more devices ship with built-in Wi-Fi capability, providing wireless Internet access has the potential to attract customers to your location. Ultimately, this can result in higher sales, increased satisfaction, and greater loyalty.
Consumers are constantly faced with retail choices (coffee shops, hotel chains, restaurants, business centers, etc.). The choices they make are driven by many factors. If they know the Starbucks down the street has a public hot spot, it's just one more reason to choose Starbucks over an alternative. In fact, some customers might even pay a premium to get coffee there. Ultimately, Wi-Fi will become an "amenity" like any other. We'll simply expect it to be there, like water fountains, electrical outlets, and public restrooms.
Business models: We'll leave the Wi-Fi on for you?
The first decision you need to make when deploying a public hot spot is what kind of business model to employ. Some hotels, such as the Four Seasons, offer free public Wi-Fi access in common areas. This upscale hotel chain offers Wi-Fi in all conference rooms, lobbies, and open areas in each of its 56 worldwide luxury properties. This helps draw people out of their rooms and into areas like bars and lounges where they typically purchase high-margin drinks or snacks while surfing the Web and checking e-mail. The hotel can also charge conference organizers, who often insist on having Wi-Fi hot spots for their attendees.
Another option is to charge the user for the access. If you decide to partner with a Wi-Fi provider, you can expect them to offer your customers a variety of pricing plan options. Wi-Fi plans are as varied as cell phone plans; however, typical options include all-you-can-use monthly subscriptions or pay-per-use plans such as by-the-minute or unlimited use in a 24-hour period. Some vendors let you customize your pricing plan, letting you charge whatever you like.
Keep in mind that wireless access points serve as bridges between the wired and wireless worlds. In doing so, all wireless traffic is aggregated to appear to come from a single IP address (yours!). Therefore, to the outside world, any illegal or immoral activity appears to come from you. If your patrons download child pornography, violate copyright laws, or hack into the White House, the FBI will come knocking on your door.
If you implement a pay for-use environment, you're at less of a risk because users must log in to gain access. Presumably, you've captured their personal information and credit card details. Therefore, with logging enabled, you have some recourse to determine who is engaging in illicit activity. Even if you're giving away access, you can mitigate the risk by requiring users to sign up for free accounts and authenticate each session. At a minimum, you can make users agree to acceptable use terms. This can be as simple as forcing users to read a legal disclaimer and click on OK before you grant them access.
From a legal perspective, this is still uncharted territory. There have been no substantive precedents set in this area. Therefore, it's in your best interest to limit your liability as much as possible.
Don't try this at home?
The ease of use and low cost of Wi-Fi is resulting in the widespread growth of community wireless networking. This phenomenon is the practice of intentionally opening an access point and sharing bandwidth with the world (or at least the world within a few hundred feet of the access point).
ISPs and bandwidth providers everywhere are crying foul, and they have a compelling argument. In the wired world, if you use a splitter and run a wire to your neighbor's house to give them free cable TV, this is clearly breaking the law. The wireless world, however, is less black and white. Some argue that if a company sells you x amount of bandwidth and markets the service as "all-you-can-eat," it shouldn't place restrictions on who uses that bandwidth. This is further complicated when you consider situations where there's a second computer in your child's room or a roommate's computer down the hall.
Some commercial ISPs, such as AT&T and Time Warner specifically prohibit bandwidth sharing with a Wi-Fi network. In New York, Time Warner Cable sent out threatening letters to users who publicly identified their networks as free Wi-Fi hot spots on a local Web site. The letter included a demand that users immediately discontinue providing open Wi-Fi access and warned that using the account in that manner violates the subscription agreement. The kicker was the threat of a $50,000 "civil remedy."
Not all ISPs agree. Covad, a national ISP and DSL provider, openly supports community Wi-Fi networks. According to Hunter Middleton, group manager of consumer product marketing at Covad, "If a user has more bandwidth than he or she needs and wants to share it with a neighbor, we don't have a problem with that." He adds, "If that's what they want to do, go ahead. That's what we sold to the customer."
Generally speaking, ISP packages intended for residential use include clauses prohibiting bandwidth sharing. Business-grade service, however, is more likely to allow this kind of activity. Because every ISP's terms of service agreement (ToS) is different, be sure to check with your provider before launching your hot spot.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has compiled a list of Wi-Fi friendly ISPs: http://www.eff.org/Infra/Wireless_cellular_radio /wireless_friendly_isp_list.html.
Hardware and software solutions
Many commercial and non-profit entities have jumped into the wireless hot spot provider market in a variety of capacities. Here, I review a cross-section of players in this space.
Boingo's primary mission is to serve as a wireless "aggregator" for the hundreds of hot spot operators across the country. To date, Boingo has established partnerships with Wayport, Surf And Sip, Nomadix, RoomLinx, Air2Lan, Pacific Direct Connect, HereUAre, and Airpath.
Boingo also helps location owners deploy wireless access on their own. It targets hotels, cafes, convention centers, airports, and other businesses. Here's how it works: Boingo provides client software, technical support, point-of sale marketing materials (brochures, stickers, etc.), and all billing services. All the business owner has to do is provide the hot spot.
There are a number of ways to deploy a Boingo hot spot. One option is to purchase a Hot Spot in a Box (a Colubris CN3000 pre-configured to work with Boingo) for $859.99. Alternatively, you can choose a partner (Wayport, Surf And Sip, or Airpath) to build the network for you. The third option is to deploy your own solution. If you choose the Hot Spot in a Box, all you need is a broadband connection, a static IP, and a Wi-Fi-ready laptop, and you're ready to go. Boingo pays you $1 every time a Boingo member connects to one of your hot spots. You also receive $20 every time you sign up a Boingo monthly subscriber (who remains a subscriber for 60 days). Boingo handles all the back-end accounting and billing services and sends you a check at the end of the month.
Boingo also supports free community networks. If you choose not to charge for your network, Boingo will promote your access point in its client software location database and won't charge its customers to access your free community network.
NetNearU started in 1997 as a public kiosk provider, deploying Internet access kiosks at more than 1,000 locations. In 2001, it developed a routing access point compatible with its established NetNearU accounting and billing system. Like Boingo, NetNearU provides a complete turnkey hot spot solution, including technical support, network management, billing services, and marketing materials.
What's different is that NetNearU has developed its own hardware and software solution called a routing access point (RAP). The RAP is an embedded Linux device designed to work with the NetNearU system. NetNearU hardware also works with the Boingo Network.
Unlike some of its competitors, the Joltage hot spot model doesn't require you to purchase a specific hardware solution. Rather, you supply the following: a computer (Windows 2000/XP or Linux), a broadband connection, and any 802.11-compatible access point. Joltage recommends the Orinoco AP500 or a Linksys product, but any Wi-Fi-compatible access point will work. After you configure your system and install the Joltage software, you're done! Joltage takes care of the rest, including usage tracking, technical support, and fee collection.
Joltage hot spot operators receive a percentage of net revenues generated from the hot spot. Payments are automatically made to your Paypal account. (At this time, Paypal is the only method for receiving payment from Joltage.) The method for calculating the revenue sharing is complicated because there are different ways a customer can pay for usage: hourly or monthly. (More details on page 33). Joltage collects all the revenue, subtracts 25 percent for overhead, and splits whatever is left with you. If my math is correct, this means for each dollar paid by the customer, you receive a monthly PayPal payment of 37.5 cents.
The Cafe.com model is a departure from the plans I've discussed so far. Location owners don't need any hardware or software. If necessary, Cafe.com comes to you, installs a computer and access point, and does everything to get you up and running. There are no setup fees or costs for you (unless there are travel costs involved). Monthly revenue is shared in the following manner: If the location provides the Internet connection, the location receives 30 percent of the first $1,500 and 40 percent thereafter. If Care.com provides the Internet connection, the location receives 20 percent of the first $1,500, and 30 percent thereafter.
Building your own hot spot
Networks such as Boingo, NetNearU, Joltage, and Cafe.com are Wi-Fi "chains" that let users subscribe to a service plan and use their subscription from any location that's a member of that chain. The advantage, for business owners, of joining a chain is they often provide marketing literature, technical support, and handle back-end billing operations. This can make your life easier and eliminate some of the headaches associated with hot spot deployments. Furthermore, because you're included in the network's directory of hot spots, this could drive customers to your location.
On the other hand, there are a number of good reasons to consider setting up your own access point. First, you may not perceive associating with a network as a major benefit. This is true if you're in a remote location where a particular network is poorly represented. In other words--if there are few Boingo hot spots in your city, the value to a customer to sign up for a monthly Boingo subscription is small. Second, you may want to keep 100 percent of the revenue and handle the billing functions internally. This makes sense if you already have an infrastructure for billing and accounting support. Third, perhaps you want to set up a free access point and don't need any of the network's billing services. If you own a small coffee shop, you might be better off giving away the Wi-Fi service in the hopes of selling more drinks and snacks.
Regardless of your reasons for choosing to go it on your own, here's a review of several vendors that offer solutions for the do-it-yourself crowd.
IP3Networks has developed a line of products that help business owners deploy their own hot spots with relative ease. These hot spot solutions are ready to go out-of-the-box. IP3Networks targets locations such as coffee shops, hotels, convention centers, and residential (multi-unit) properties. Its product, NetAccess for Wireless Hot Spots, ships as a rack-mountable, stand-alone hardware appliance. NetAccess provides plug-and-play access for users (clients don't need any reconfiguration), as well as bandwidth management features, billing capability, complete logging, and extensive management tools. You can force page redirects (i.e., set up a Web portal), and you can specify any pricing plan options, including full control over duration, speed, and price. In addition, you can offer multiple classes of high-speed access and reserve different amounts of bandwidth for different areas, such as conference rooms or guest rooms, in the case of a hotel.
Perhaps the most exciting feature is the ability to do one-to-one static mapping; this lets you assign static IPs on a per-user basis. You could actually create a special pricing plan that gives users the option to pay an additional fee to have a static IP address assigned. This is important because some VPNs "break" if the IP is subject to network address translation (NAT), particularly if multiple VPN clients are using the same NAT'ed public IP. The 1U 19" rack-mounted, Linux device comes with a 566MHz Intel Celeron CPU 256MB of RAM.
While these features may seem like overkill for small shops, the enterprise-grade features available in the NetAccess product are a lifesaver for any commercial deployment. NetAccess ships in two versions. The NA-25 (25-user license) has a suggested retail price of $1,000; the NA-50 (50-user license) has a suggested retail price of $1,500. These products score a home run For businesses wanting all the bells and whistles not available on standard access points. The NetAccess solution provides security, flexibility, bandwidth management, and complete billing options. It's also compatible with the Boingo network.
Nomadix offers a product called the Universal Subscriber Gateway (USG), which is a stand-alone, turnkey hardware appliance. Like the IP3Networks device, the USG doesn't require any client reconfiguration, even if you've enabled static IPs or proxy settings. Standard features include 802.11 and Web-based SSL authentication, as well as RADIUS, AAA, and billing tools. The Home Page Redirect function lets you intercept browser requests and redirect users to a page of your choice. Bandwidth and billing options are fully customizable.
Nomadix claims to be able to support 2,000 simultaneous users and 40Mbps of throughput. The 2U 19" rack-mounted VxWorks device fully integrates with the Boingo network and billing system. It has a retail price of $4,995.
Based in Canada, FatPort has an interesting approach to deploying wireless hot spots. The FatPoint all-in-one device lets you plug in your broadband connection and have a commercial hot spot (or FatZone) up and running in a matter of minutes. If you're based in Canada, the FatPoint Complete package is for you. The cost is CDN$199 per month with a maximum revenue sharing model of 50-50. This includes DSL installation and maintenance.
Outside Canada, you'll need the FatPoint Express package. The cost is a flat fee of US$525 with a maximum revenue sharing model of 50-50. The U.S. version of FatPort doesn't include Internet access. Both packages include a FatPoint Server, marketing materials, customer and technical support, and one free yearly account. The customer purchases time online or uses FatCodes, which are physical cards sold at authorized dealers (like calling cards). FatCodes come in 15-minute, 60-minute, daily, and monthly increments.
The FatPoint Server uses an NS-GX (i386-compatible) 300MHz CPU with 128MB RAM and a 200mw Wi-Fi card with removable diversity antennas. If your location is large enough to require multiple devices, they can roam seamlessly among FatPoint Servers.
If you don't plan on charging your customers for access, and your location can be adequately covered by a single access point, Sputnik might be a good solution. Using your own hardware and access point, the Sputnik software installs on your computer as a completely customized Linux distribution. After you go through the installation process, it's easy to manage the portal through a browser interface from any wireless client.
Sputnik is also a popular choice for many free, community wireless networks. The standard features include a firewall, remote management, bandwidth shaping, usage tracking, and an authentication mechanism. Best of all, Sputnik is free! However, a fee-based enterprise version should be available later this year. The enterprise version will include enhanced security services such as VPN and enhanced integration with RADIUS, LDAP, EAP, NDS, and Active Directory.
Are you ready?
Now that you've reviewed some options for hot spot deployments, it's time to develop your rollout plans and put them into action! Millions of people already own Wi-Fi-ready devices. As prices continue to fall, more and more laptops will automatically include wireless capabilities.
This reminds me of the early days when laptops came with PC Card slots and the first thing everybody went out and bought was a modem and an Ethernet PC card. Soon after, the laptop manufacturers caught on and simply integrated modems and Ethernet features into their products. The same thing is happening with Wi-Fi. The next laptop you purchase will more than likely come with Wi-Fi by default. With all the new Wi-Fi-ready laptops shipping, a critical mass will quickly develop.
This massive base of customers will be looking for places to use their newfound wireless freedoms. By setting up a hot spot at your location, you are effectively putting up a "Welcome, Friend" sign for wireless devices and their owners.
MOBILE BUSINESS BENEFITS
Making your business wireless-friendly can drive more customers to your location. And, if you choose to charge for connections it might open a new revenue stream, too.
Lee Barken, CCNA, MCP, has more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. Lee has worked as an IT consultant and network security specialist for Ernst & Young's Information Technology Risk Management (ITRM) practice, and KPMG's Risk and Advisory Services (RAS) practice. Lee is also the co-founder of the San Diego Wireless Users Group (http://www.sdwug.org) and writes and speaks on the topic of wireless LAN technology and security. He also teaches the "WLAN Deployment and Security" class for University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Extension and is writing a comprehensive book on wireless security. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Title Annotation:||Wireless Web|
|Publication:||Mobile Business Advisor|
|Article Type:||Industry Overview|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2002|
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