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How to create a Wi-Fi hotspot

Creating a Wi-Fi hotspot can be done one of two ways. Our site wireless networking expert Lisa Phifer explains how to create a prepaid hotspot from the ground up.

I want to create a prepaid hotspot in an area of about 1km². What do I need from the start to get it fully functioning?
Wireless security
If you're attending Interop 2009, attend Lisa's panel on Wireless Security Strategies and Tools.
There are two ways to go about building a hotspot: assemble your own piece parts, or buy a turnkey "hotspot in a box" solution.

If you want to assemble your own hotspot, you'll need to buy several wireless APs, enough to support your desired number of users and cover the area you're targeting. There are some general rules of thumb -- for example, each 802.11g AP might cover a roughly circular area of 3,000 feet. But coverage can be heavily affected by building materials, interference sources, and products, so you should really survey the area and plan your hotspot accordingly. One quick and dirty way to get started is to use AirTight Network's free on-line coverage estimator.

Wireless APs will need to be connected via wired Ethernet or 5 GHz wireless backhaul to a hotspot gateway that provides the necessary set of network and security services, including DNS, DHCP, captive portal login, and Internet access. Examples include the HP ProCurve (formerly Colubris) Multi-Service Controller, the Bluesocket BlueSecure WLAN Controller, and the SMC EliteConnect Wireless Hotspot Gateway, to give just a few diverse examples. Alternatively, you can also create your own from open source like NoCat.net or ChilliSpot.

If you'd rather not assemble hotspot piece parts, another option is the buy into a hotspot in a box program where you become a paid member of a larger hotspot aggregator's network. For example, you might turn your target venue into a Boingo hotspot by purchasing a turnkey hotspot system from NetNearU or Pronto. The main advantage is not really to simplify installation -- it's to simplify payment collection and draw roaming users to your hotspot. But then you'll always be giving a cut of your revenue to the aggregator in return for those benefits.

This was last published in March 2009

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