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5 tips for firms providing free Wi-Fi

Providing free wireless access as a value-added service for customers can be costly for smaller businesses to set up and maintain. Industry players offer up tips on how to do so efficiently.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

With the increasing proliferation of mobile devices in Asia, businesses are starting to provide free Wi-Fi access as a value-added service for customers who wish to remain connected.

But setting up and maintaining the wireless network can be costly for small businesses unsure of how to do so efficiently.

ZDNet spoke to IT professionals and a business owner who shared tips on addressing issues related to equipment, bandwidth and security, which organizations might face when planning to set up a free Wi-Fi network.

1. Deciding on the equipment
Benjamin Lam, a restaurant owner in Singapore, said he uses a modem provided by a local telco and a typical router used by home users to set up the Wi-Fi network in his restaurant.

Antun Matija Filipović, lecturer at the University College of Applied Sciences in Safety, said home routers are sufficient if the number of users expected to concurrently access the network is low and the network area covered is not too wide.

Besides a router, Filipović noted that businesses might require repeaters to boost Wi-Fi signals and other installation materials such as cables and connectors as well as hotspot management software.

Madura Eleperuma, network engineer at business systems integrator KBSL Information Technology, said home routers are designed for low user densities and low coverage, less challenging environment with little interference or signal dampening obstacles. Thus, it is "perfectly fine" for businesses with similar environments to deploy home routers, he said.

However, Eleperuma advised businesses that need additional features such as support for more concurrent users, wider coverage, or more advanced features such as Layer 3 roaming and guest wireless access for temporary password-based Internet connection, a better option would be to install a controller-based enterprise-class product.

2. Predicting how much bandwidth will be needed
Eleperuma noted that bandwidth required by business providing free Wi-Fi would depend on the expected number of users accessing the network at the same time.

To provide good user experience for about 10 concurrent users, he suggested at least a 5Mbps DSL connection.

However, he noted output could change based on the type of Internet subscription. For example, a DSL connection is shared and will have fluctuating bandwidth, while leased lines offer guaranteed bandwidth, he explained.

Filipović added that depending on the number of simultaneous users, a proprietor would typically need about 256Kbps of download bandwidth and around 32Kbps of upload bandwidth per client.

Lam said his restaurant subscribes to a regular Internet plan which costs less than S$100 (US$82) a month.

3. Setting up network to allow access only to customers
According to Lam, his restaurant prints Wi-Fi access passwords on receipts issued to customers.

"However, we seldom change the password so if [a customer has] been here once, [the customer] will know the password. We are not particular about non-paying customers using the network," he said.

For businesses that want to ensure only paying customers can use the Wi-Fi, Eleperuma said they can implement an Advanced Encryption Standard-based (AES) common password for customers to connect to the wireless network.

Businesses can also set up a controller-based portal redirection and provide a one-time, temporary password, he added.

4. Ensuring the Wi-Fi network is secured
Filipović added that non-paying customers also can be denied Wi-Fi access by hotspot management software which, when paired with a firewall, also can prevent customers from using the connection for illegal activities.

"Free should not mean 'insecure'," said Greg MacPherson, IT security consultant at Constellation Security, who recommended businesses set up a proxy for customers, implement a firewall to restrict traffic, and refrain from using default IP addresses or passwords.

By forcing customers to surf the Web through a proxy, where they must read and accept the terms and conditions of usage, the business is legally protected and able to establish a log of who was on the network, he said.

The proxy also allows the business to restrict the time individual users spend on the network, for example, by requiring customers buy another drink to extend their free Wi-Fi connection, MacPherson added.

A firewall allows the premise to restrict outbound traffic and incoming traffic, he added.

"Since you'll be connecting this to the public Internet, your customers will thank you for not making their laptops vulnerable to attacks while they enjoy their bubble tea or whatever," he said. "Using default IP addresses, user names or passwords is just lazy," he added.

MacPherson said businesses should take the time to set up "long convoluted" passwords and keep a copy for future reference. They also need to change the IP addresses to something other than the default or, he said.

5. Preparing for other issues
After deploying and getting the Wi-Fi network up and running, businesses might face other issues.

To address these, Eleperuma said the business might need to dedicate and train some staff to attend to wireless services such as generating passwords or troubleshooting.

Other issues affecting customers' user experience might arise.

Filipović said signal quality as well as download and upload speed variations are some common problems, if all the necessary parameters have not been considered or properly configured.

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