A hotspot in a box is a turnkey solution that you can buy and setup yourself. Typically you get a software package, instructions for configuring your system, and a support line if you run into trouble.
Some vendors will sell you the hardware you need as part of the package; others just sell you the software and support. Any provider that sells you software, hardware, the connection, and manages it for you is really a commercial hotspot provider. We’ll look at the commercial providers in the next.
One of the advantages of a do-it-yourself package where you provide the hardware is that you can use newer technology and accommodate 802.11g users as well as implement a firewall, VPN, and other advanced security features that you might not get from a commercial hotspot in a box provider.
If you use one of the latter type, it’s worth asking about what it offers in terms of advanced and advancing technology. If a newer protocol comes along, such as 802.11i, will the provider support it and can you (or they) swap out your equipment to upgrade you?
A good provider will update your software and hardware (if it supplies the hardware) with patches, firmware, and other upgrades. One provider of free hotspot (free-spot) server software is Lessnetworks.com.
Lessnetworks is Austin, Texas–based group, part of the Free Wi-Fi Movement, offers the Hotspot Server open source software that you can use to create your own free hotspot. When you run the software installation it creates a Linux system with the appropriate settings.
Lessnetworks provides downloads of the software, sells its software on disk for a nominal cost, and even sells some preconfigured wireless servers on eBay that you can purchase as a package. According to the Lessnetworks folks, because of their software there are more free hotspots in Austin than there are paid sites.
Commercial Hotspot Providers
Several large commercial hotspot providers offer a turnkey and complete solution to hotspots. We’ve mentioned T-Mobile previously as a complete solution with its own dedicated and closed network; T-Mobile is Starbucks’ and Borders’ wireless hotspot provider.
Another large Wi-Fi service of this type that specializes in the travel market is Wayport. Wayport provides hotspots in hotels, airports, and retail locations, as well as providing wired high-speed services to businesses.
Wander around an airport and connect through a Wayport 802.11b hotspot and it will charge you $6.95 for the connection. Packages of connections can be purchased at $25 for 3 connections, $50 for 8 connections, and $100 for 20 connections.
You will also find Wayport as a high-speed wired connection in hotels, where they charge $9.95 for a 24-hour connection on top of your hotel bill. Monthly, annual, and corporate memberships can be purchased as well.
Wayport currently has a pilot program going with 75 McDonalds restaurants in the U.S. to test hotspot commercial viability. Wayport does participate in roaming arrangements with other companies such as Boingo.
T-Mobile, Wayport, and a few others are aimed at large companies, and don’t really serve the small business market. That may change over time as the market gets more competitive, or as these companies enter into agreements to let their users have roaming accounts on other networks.
You’ll find that each service that caters to the SMB (small and medium business) market requires a setup fee, often monthly fees (they can be as high as $1,000/month), and will keep anywhere from 50 percent to 75 percent of the generated revenue.
What you get from these companies is a monthly royalty check for the usage of their hotspot by your customers. They make your hotspot essentially a “lights out” operation for your business. If you buy a commercial business class wireless router you may find that your wireless vendor has teamed up with another company to offer hotspot services.
Boingo Wireless has this arrangement with Linksys and will support devices like its Wireless-G VPN Broadband Router (WRV54G). When you connect that router to your ISP, you can create an account with the Boingo Hot Spot in a Box service. Currently there are 7,000 Boingo hotspots worldwide, and yours gets added to the list.
What Boingo provides is a Web-based management console. From its Web site you can monitor your hotspot traffic for one or more of your hotspots. Boingo makes its money the way all Wi-Fi hotspot providers do; it charges a monthly subscription fee to its users.
When a new user connects to your hotspot you get $4 for daily use by someone who isn’t a Boingo customer, $1 for each Boingo customer, and $20 for any user who signs up for the Boingo service through your hotspot.
Boingo offers you co-marketing programs that include signs, tents, brochures, and a wireless hotspot listing in both its own directory as well as the Intel International Location directory. Better yet, Boingo provides end-user support, customer service, and customer billing.
Although Boingo calls its product a “hot spot in a box,” it provides all aspects of hotspots with the exception of the connection. To my way of thinking, that makes Boingo a commercial provider.
Boingo does offer what T-Mobile does not—the ability for users to roam on several dozen networks. In that sense Boingo is an aggregator, much like telephone companies that resell excess network
capacity from telephone networks. Boingo’s focus is on the small business market, and the aggregation of wireless networks is a plus in terms of providing you with paying customers. Another offering along the lines of Boingo is the Surf and Sip Internet Café-in-a-Box, or ICAB for short.
ICAB charges you a $300 setup fee to set up its hotspot. With its “Fee” plan you pay the lesser of $50 per month or 25 percent of your derived revenue to ICAB. It also offers a “Free” plan where you pay the setup but not the monthly fee and you get all the derived revenue.
ICAB supplies the software, customer technical support, prepaid connection cards, marketing, and if you need them, the Wi-Fi access and managed computer stations. You supply your own broadband connection. ICAB has an interesting note on its Web site.
It says “If you don’t think you can increase sales by at least $100 per month by offering wireless Internet, you should be thinking about other ways to increase your revenue.” That’s probably good advice. Airpath Wireless’s WiBOSS Management Platform is yet another package provider.
It will install whatever number of access points necessary to cover your business, all with a flat fee per location. It also offers a browser-based management console called the Provider Control Panel that lets you monitor usage and change your plan setup.
Your package includes a customization feature (login and splash screen), an optional merchant gateway, free tech support, and a 24/7 branded customer care center.
The AIA Instant HotSpot is a site where you can buy a standard package for a location of up to 2,000 plus square feet for $799 and an extended package for locations of 6,000 square feet or more. A premium package for $999 adds a credit card processing feature to the standard package, something that is also included in the extended package.
What’s nice about AIA’s product is that even though it’s a little more costly than some of the others, you get to keep the revenue you generate. AIA supplies everything except the broadband connection.
Almost all of these companies offer you a guarantee to decide if you want to keep their product and will refund your money if you don’t. For AIA that guarantee is 90 days, whereas for Airpath the guarantee is 30 days.
Use the guarantee period to thoroughly test your hotspot provider’s technical support. If they aren’t there for the trial, they won’t be there to help you when you really need it further down the line. This is one of the most important reasons for signing with a provider.
Test them both as your business network and as an end user would, if they provide end-user support. Whatever platform you choose, one of the most important considerations is how large the pool of qualified users is.
You’ll find that organizations such as GoRemote (formerly GRIC), IPass, and others aggregate users. If your customer has an account on FatPort, DeepBlue Wireless, Wayport, and others then that account works on Boingo. So ask what networks participate in your vendor’s roaming agreements and try to make some assessment of your likely audience.
Hotspot service contracts are a little like cell phone contracts. Providers want to sign you to a long-term agreement. The market is very fluid, however, and given how fast technology is changing in this area it is a good idea not to lock yourself into a long-term agreement if you can help it.
You may find that your contractor also has savings it can pass along to you such as arrangements with ISPs for special low-cost connection packages, so ask about what additional benefits come with a long-term contract.
You should be able to upgrade or downgrade a package based on the experience you have with your hotspot, and perhaps have a buyout clause.