By Joseph Moran
April 27, 2004
Sticking hotspot functionality into an inexpensive router has– despite some glitches — never been easier. Here’s the step-by-step.
If you own a small retail or other commercial establishment, you may have considered implementing a WLAN hotspot either as a money making venture or a convenience feature to lure or retain customers.
Recently, the equipment needed to establish a hotspot has gotten simpler to operate and less expensive to buy. On the other hand, kits costs are still well north of $500 and require a fair amount of effort to set up and operate (especially in the area of account maintenance and customer interaction).
But if you would like to reap the benefits (read: revenue) of a hotspot without the hassle of ongoing maintenance and customer service responsibilities, you may be interested in a new firmware upgrade for the Linksys WRV54G (which we reviewed in full last month).
The WRV54G is normally a mild-mannered under-$200 wireless VPN router, but this free firmware upgrade (version 2.25.2, to be exact) turns the device into a commercial hotspot. For a $10 one-time registration fee, your WLAN can become a node on the Boingo Wireless virtual network. Boingo is what we in the biz call an “aggregator” — they don’t install any hardware, but they sign venues with hotspots on to their network to expand their footprint of locations to offer subscribers. The company handles all of the back-end customer-related chores; all you have to do is keep your equipment running and connected to your ISP, and publicize your hotspot: Boingo will ship a kit of marketing materials to help in that regard.
Once your hotspot is established, Boingo will pay you a commission of either $1 or $4, depending on subscriber status for each day a user connects to your hotspot, plus give you $20 when a user signs up for a monthly subscription at your location.
Before you start anticipating those commission checks, Boingo points out that users (meaning WRV54G owners) are responsible for determining whether they’re legally permitted to resell their ISP’s broadband service. Therefore, contacting your provider for DSL or cable modem, or consulting the provider’s Terms of Service is a prudent move. Chances are if you are paying for business-class service you’ll be okay, but reselling consumer-level access may be prohibited.
After you’ve confirmed that there are no legal impediments, you should also be certain your broadband connection has enough bandwidth to support the number of users you expect to have. Boingo doesn’t currently enforce minimum bandwidth amounts but the company says it will be monitoring the “customer experience” and reserves the right to terminate a hotspot if performance is not up to snuff.
Once you’ve dealt with these issues, you can convert your WRV54G to a hotspot. When you initiate the process within your WRV54G’s Web configuration interface, you’re presented with a series of forms in which you’ll need to provide a variety of personal information. Lest you think to try and keep Uncle Sam in the dark, a Social Security or a corporate tax ID number must be provided because someone will have to pay taxes on the hotspot proceeds. I encountered a couple of hiccups in my first attempts at the hotspot setup process. While going through the registration process, I inadvertently juxtaposed a pair of digits in my credit card number. But even after I fixed the error, the Boingo registration page wouldn’t accept the number as valid. After aborting the registration process, I attempted to re-initiate it but could not get back in for about 10 minutes.
I subsequently completed the process successfully, and within minutes of setting up my WRV54G as a hotspot, I was able to log into Boingo’s Web site to access my hotspot settings. On the other hand, my WRV54G reported its hotspot as being offline.
After restoring the WRV54G to its factory configuration and engaging the registration process a third time I was finally up and running.
When you access the WRV54G’s configuration panel post-conversion, all of the WLAN configuration pages will still be present but grayed out. Any adjustment of the wireless settings on the device must now be done via the Boingo Web site. Besides changing device settings, (IP addressing only, not the radio settings) you can use the site to obtain network traffic statistics as well as monitor usage and revenue information.
Once your WRV54G has been “Boingoed”, the WLAN portion of the device is permanently segregated from the wired LAN (the unit has Ethernet ports to connect near-by desktop computers). The WLAN, which is set to mixed 802.11b/g mode, becomes a separate subnet, and traffic between the two interfaces is forbidden. As a result, you may wonder if you then need to have a Boingo account in order for your own employees or family members to use the wireless network.
The answer fortunately is no. Either during the initial setup or anytime thereafter, you can specify MAC addresses that will be granted access to the network without the benefit of a Boingo account. You’re limited to only 10 accounts of this kind, however and this of course authenticates hardware, not people. Within about 5 minutes of entering a MAC into the site, I had a non-Boingo wireless client surfing. Remember though that this is a hotspot, so you’ll be communicating without the benefit of wireless encryption. (Incidentally, you can un-register your WRV54G from Boingo anytime either directly through the device or via the Boingo site.)
If you want to reap the benefits of being hotspot provider without most of the legwork, the WRV54G is an excellent way to do it. Despite a few glitches I suffered, the setup and aftermath should be relatively painless for most.
And if you’re lucky, you might pull some customers out of your local Starbucks. Better get a pot of coffee on