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DIY Hotsposts Using Wi-Fi Hotspot Devices
Literally hundreds of thousands of businesses around the world can’t be wrong. By offering Wi-Fi hotspot services to their customers, they’re gaining traffic, recognition, and affluent customers, not to mention keeping up with the competition. Wi-Fi is not just an amenity in many types of locations — it’s expected now in airports, hotels, public libraries, and many cafes. If you don’t have it, people will go elsewhere. Keeping up with email is a 24/7 proposition for many workers, and Wi-Fi hotspots help them integrate Web access into their daily routines.
But major locations like airports and hotel chains have corporate WI-Fi programs in place, and know about the benefits of offering Wi-Fi service. This article is aimed at the small business owner, public librarian, or community worker who is considering offering hotspot service in one or a few locations. Even if you can’t produce an additional dime in profits directly from Wi-Fi service, you still might benefit from becoming a hotspot. Places that offer free Internet access, such as Panera Bread and Schlotzsky’s deli locations around the country, find that customers who use their wireless connection are more likely to consume more coffee and sandwiches, and come at off-peak hours.
Not all businesses can benefit from becoming a hotspot, of course. Restaurants that rely on a high turnover of tables or seats might find it counterproductive to have customers occupy tables for hours while sending email or reading the online Wall Street Journal. But businesses that want to keep customers at their tables, knowing that they’ll occasionally stand up to order a high-margin afternoon brownie or another latte, could gain enough incremental revenue by becoming a wireless hotspot to justify the service.
If a high percentage of your customers use laptops at your cafe, restaurant, motel, or bookstore, or if your business is situated near a university or along a “travel ribbon” — places where students, business travelers, or vacationers are likely to congregate — it’s a safe bet they would welcome the opportunity to connect wirelessly to the Internet. Places like laundromats catering to students, or truckstops along busy highways, are ideal locations. If you dont offer the service, your customers could defect to a competitor who does.
Fortunately, the risks and costs of starting up a hotspot are quite low compared to the possibility of attracting new customers or increasing the loyalty (and spending) of your current habitués.
Basic hotspot equipment is inexpensive (a couple hundred bucks); the bigger cost will be the monthly fee for a business-class broadband DSL or cable line — something you might want to have anyway for your own purposes, like real-time credit-card processing. (In some locations, DSL or broadband cable may be unavailable, and you might have to resort to a more expensive digital line service, such as ISDN or T1.) This low cost and high return in terms of increased business and goodwill is why many independent cafes and bookstores offer hotspot service for free and other ways of anonymous browsing. It helps them compete against the large chains.
On the other hand, those same chains, like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble, will probably never offer the service for free. Wi-Fi freeloaders could flock to these well-known and easily found stores and buy nothing while taking up tables all day. By charging a fee, even a small amount, they ensure that most people are coming for food or books first, and Wi-Fi second, while collecting appropriate monies from people who just want to surf all day.
No matter which route you go, free or fee, you’ll need to handle the mechanics of obtaining an Internet connection that you can contractually offer to your customers or visitors, install hardware — or have it installed — to run the network, collect fees (if you choose), and handle ongoing troubleshooting and technical support for users. The costs of setting up a hotspot can vary widely depending on whether you want to charge for service or not, and how much control over the network you need to feel comfortable.
So where to start? If we’ve piqued your interest in setting up a hotspot, there are three basic options:
- Do it yourself. (Not as hard as you might think! Especially for free hotspots.)
- Choose a turnkey solution, incorporating hardware and account/billing management.
- Work with a hotspot operator who installs and maintains equipment as well as handles billing.
After checking them out, you’ll be well on the road to taking your business from unwired to wireless.
Free Hotspots Software
For free hotspots, the cheapest and easiest way to get started may be to simply do it yourself. Setting up your own Wi-Fi hotspot network isn’t much different than putting one together at home. You can pretty much just go to a retailer like Best Buy, pick up a wireless router for less than $100, connect it to your broadband DSL or cable modem line (best wireless N routers), and stick a “Free Wi-Fi Here!” sign on the door. You may also need to talk to your Internet service provider (ISP) to find out whether you are permitted to allow others to use your Internet connection. Some providers charge up to twice as much for a business-class DSL line as for a consumer line.
Setting up a wireless router is easy. You’ll usually be up and running just a few minutes after opening the box. The basic procedures are the same for small businesses.
Once connected and turned on, your Wi-Fi hotspot will be available to anyone with a properly equipped laptop or PDA. Also, you’ll want to leave encryption off at public hotspots, to make it easier for customers to connect. Just be sure your modem is compatible with your ISP. Note that if you use one broadband connection for both Wi-Fi service and your own computers, you will also want some form of protection — a gateway or firewall — that prevents hotspot users from getting inside your systems. If your own computers are wireless too, you’ll want to register them on your secondary encrypted network.
When setting up your hotspot, we recommend putting up a home page that appears on customer’s computers when they connect, possibly requiring them to create an account (whether free or for a fee). That way you can keep track of who is using the system for marketing and/or billing purposes. The home page should also warn customers that they are using the network at their own risk, since your business isn’t providing security, and Wi-Fi networks are notoriously vulnerable to eavesdropping. If you’re not a server maven, you might need to get some assistance in making sure this home page always appears.
Keep in mind that you will start getting customer support questions: connections could be spotty on your homegrown network (consumer-grade access point equipment is not designed for robust coverage like business-class Wi-Fi gateways) and some wireless subscribers might not be able to connect at all due to incompatibilities. See Router200 for any compatibility issues between modems. But since you’re almost certainly not charging for access when you’re doing it yourself, their expectations are not likely to be as high as they would be if they were paying for it.
If you want to avoid the hassles of doing it yourself, consider the next two options: buying a turnkey hotspot solution, or working with a hotspot provider.
Create Your Own Hotspot
If you want the benefits of a managed professional hotspot solution, and are willing to do a bit of setup yourself, try one of the several turnkey hotspot solutions out there. With these you can pretty much just plug a router into your broadband connection, do a little bit of configuration, and your hotspot will be up and running. They are perfect for small locations that don’t require special site surveys and multiple access points. Some are managed for you, and some you can manage yourself with the included software. If you have a larger site or simply want to make a phone call and have someone install things for you, turn to the next page.
Partnering with Boingo
Of the big provider networks, Boingo is the easiest one for independent hotspots to join, and being a member of a large Wi-Fi network is a huge advantage. For small locations that can be served by a single access point, the simplest way to become a Boingo hotspot is to sign up with one of Boingo’s service partners. Once you are on one of these networks, you will automatically be listed in Boingo’s directory as well.
If you have a larger location, such as a hotel, consider Boingo’s WISP-in-a-Box solution, which allows web portal branding, custom pricing, and so on.
There are other major companies that sell turnkey hardware and software for hotspot management. If you have several locations, or want to become a hotspot service provider yourself, check them out. They are not set up for the individual hotspot owner who needs a lot of hand-holding, but for IT or service-provider-level solutions. However, all have a network of resellers that will provide the installation and management for you.
If you decide to charge for your service, the easiest way to go may be to partner with a hotspot operator that will install the equipment, manage the service and billing, and even help you get a broadband connection if you don’t already have one. Of course, you will also split the resulting fees with the provider, but this can still be an attractive alternative to doing it yourself.
Other important advantages to partnering include marketing support (such as listing with online directories and in-store signage), technical support for your customers (usually toll-free), credit card processing for payments, and membership in national or international service networks, like Boingo. New customers are much more likely to find you if your location is a part of a larger network. Boingo and Trustive, for example, provide end-user software that includes directory listings, so users can find you even if they aren’t online.
However, you often can’t partner directly with one of the larger networks, such as T-Mobile or iPass (Boingo is a notable exception). Instead, partner with one of the service providers who feed the larger nets. Look for an operator with a track record in locations like yours, as well as local hotspots and customers you can visit or speak to as references. Be wary of entering into long-term contracts.
Rules for Hotspot Success
If you’ve got it, flaunt it! A little planning and promotion can go a long way toward making your hotspot a success in terms of added revenue, higher brand recognition, and increased customer satisfaction. Here are Team-Touchdroid’s top ten dos and don’ts for the self-respecting hotspot:
1. Provide a laptop-friendly environment for your wireless customers, with comfortable chairs, tables big enough to accommodate notebook computers, and electrical outlets available nearby. There’s no need for expensive rewiring — a few strategically placed power strips running from existing outlets will do the trick. Place them in quiet unused corners.
2. Get the word out! If you are part of a hotspot network, you’ll receive things like door stickers, brochures, tent cards, and other means of notifying your customers that Wi-Fi is now available. Use them! If you’re doing it yourself, create your own door or window signage advertising your hotspot. Inside, post clear signs telling people how to connect. The clearer things are, the fewer questions your employees will need to answer.
3. Promote your hotspot externally too. Don’t just advertise to your existing customers, attract new ones by including references to your hotspot service in newspaper and yellow pages ads, on your Web site, and even on your Facebook messager and all of your other social media accounts.
4. Get listed! More and more, business travelers are relying on online directories of hotspots to find the location closest to them. Sign up with as many as you can. In addition, some paid networks (including Boingo), allow free Wi-Fi sites to be listed in their directories at no charge.
5. Help customers get connected. If you are not partnered with a hotspot provider network (which will have its own customer support phone numbers), try to train at least one employee on each shift about basic connection techniques in case of customer questions. Also print up a laminated card or two with basic instructions and troubleshooting techniques that can be handed out like a menu (easing the load on your employees).
6. Give it away! If you’re a pay site, consider using promotions like a free month for new accounts, “frequent-buyer” cards good for a day of access, and other incentives for good customers of your primary business. Once customers have tried it, they’ll probably like it. Just be sure that you don’t end up giving access away to business travelers, since they’re only there for the day anyway.
7.Customize your splash screen. By all means take advantage of the free opportunity to advertise your primary business, and gain recognition in return for providing hotspot service. Almost all turnkey hotspot software allows you to do this without programming knowledge.
8. Minimize interference. Don’t use 2.4GHz cordless phones on your property, and keep microwave ovens away from your access point. These are both common sources of interference with Wi-Fi, which uses the same 2.4GHz radio band. Use 900MHz cordless phones instead. Also make sure you use a different Wi-Fi channel than other nearby hotspots. If you still get complaints about a poor signal, switch to a MIMO router.
9. Don’t get spammed. If you are providing a free hotspot, or using consumer-level access point hardware, be aware that spammers may be attracted to your service as a great way to get onto the Internet. This could result in your location being blacklisted by ISPs, making it useless for regular customers (and nightmarish to undo). Dedicated hotspot solutions normally monitor user activity and prevent this sort of thing from happening. They also often have filtering options for objectionable content, which may be necessary in places like schools or libraries.
10. Provide the computer, too. Some visitors might want to get online at your hotspot but not have a laptop. Why not offer a couple workstations where customers can pay to get onto the net.