Any advice on how to set up a wifi hotspot in my local cafe?
October 31, 2006 3:14 PM   Subscribe

Any advice on how to set up a wifi hotspot in my local cafe?

I've checked posts tagged wifi and wireless, and they lead to this helpful fella: How To: Using m0n0wall to create a wireless captive portal. It seems like a blueprint I'd like to follow.

I live in London, UK, and I want to set up wifi in my local cafe. They have nothing at all in the way of computing facilities or IT-savvy. I'll probably be doing it for cost, and maybe a few freebies. Assuming they go for it, I'll need to know a few specifics. So has anyone here actually done this sort of thing, and are there any pitfalls I should look out for?

I'm wondering about things like gotchas with m0n0wall, specific hardware I should use, how to limit access to patrons, etc. There are a few pages on the internet I've found that seem useful (such as Create your own hotspot) but they all show a heavy US bias. Are there an UK- or London-specific issues I should be aware of? For example, is there a reliable ISP that will allow the cafe to sell or give away internet access? Any other UK-centric advice will be gratefully noted.

I am reasonably technically able, although all this will be new to me. I want to create a set-up that allows patrons of the cafe (not just any passers-by) free (or paid-for) access to the internet for a time-limited period (say 1 hour per purchase). The system also has to be robust and secure enough to require basically zero administration, since I won't necessarily be around to fix it if it does break. Asking someone else to "do all the work" isn't really an option, since if this goes well I'd like to persuade a few other independent businesses to follow suit, with my help.

This seems like exactly the sort of question that's probably been answered here already; if so, I couldn't spot it but I'll happily follow a link :-)
posted by ajp to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by rbs at 3:16 PM on October 31, 2006

Response by poster: rbs, that doesn't seem to answer my question at all. Perhaps you could expand?

I should mention that the cafe seats around 50 people at peak times.
posted by ajp at 3:36 PM on October 31, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry rbs, I was a little curt. Are you suggesting I use FON for the hardware, the ISP, both..? Have you actually used it for this purpose? I can see how it would be very useful for an individual but is it beneficial for a small business?
posted by ajp at 3:51 PM on October 31, 2006

Basically you need a mechanism of allowing certain MAC addresses on your network, and then kicking them off after a certain amount of time.

Ssadly, though, I can offer no other advice. If you did get an unlimited bandwidth plan (I don't know about the UK, but most services in the US are like that) under a business account, you can donate bandwidth to all people in the building by just having a free, open, wifi.

How would you stop people from sitting around outside (or even inside) leeching all day? Hire a bouncer. =)
posted by triolus at 3:58 PM on October 31, 2006

You might just want to find a turn-key solution for this. The ZyXEL ZyAIR does exactly what you want, for a one time cost of about $500 US. It's possible to cobble together your own captive portal out of free software, but it's that time-limited/customer-only/zero-administration thing that will end up biting you in the ass, and probably cost you more in the end.
posted by team lowkey at 5:50 PM on October 31, 2006

Hmm. I'm not sure if that one includes a receipt printer. The old one did.
posted by team lowkey at 5:53 PM on October 31, 2006

Use social pressure instead of absolute power. Have a simple WEP key written on a chalkboard in the cafe, and change it ever day or 2. That forces people to come into the store to figure out the key, and if they are in there, they most likely will purchase something. This is based on the idea that you have an infinite bandwidth plan.

Nothing will annoy your customers more than cutting off their wireless halfway through an IM conversation, or an email.
posted by cschneid at 6:15 PM on October 31, 2006

This is not, I feel, primarily a technical project, although you seem intent on approaching it thus, ajp. First and foremost, like any business offering, you have to make the case for whether it is a profit opportunity, or even a break even proposition. With more and more organizations of all descriptions offering free WiFi as an amenity, your first step should be to find out whether people who currently frequent the location would pay for WiFi access. You'd do this best, by taking an anonymous, simple, probably paper-based survey. Just print up some forms with basic questions, and see what responses you get:

We're considering offering WiFi based Internet access, and we'd like your opinions on the following points, to guide us in our decision:

1) I visit this location ____ times per month.

2) I ___ would or ___ would not (mark one) appreciate the availability of paid WiFi access at this location.

3) I ___would or ____ would not (mark one) be a user of such a service myself.

4) I ___would or ___ would not (mark one) regularly visit with others who would be users of such a service.

5) I would pay up to a maximum of (circle one) £0 [wouldn't use] £1/hr £2/hr £3/hr for such a service.

6) I would not pay for WiFi access myself, but I would visit this location more frequently, and/or pay more for other goods, if WiFi availability were offered. ___True ___False

Put the forms near the cash register, along with a collection box, and tabulate the results, against overall traffic and reciepts. That will give you an economic case for a paid business model, or not. I suspect it will not. Where I live, the paid model of Starbucks and other early providers has lost out largely to cafe chains such as Panera Bread which offer better, faster WiFi services for free than the poor, paid services through T-Mobile that Starbucks outlets have. And, Panera has far better coffee, and a much wider selection of food items, as well as better furniture. What is keeping the Starbucks at the end of my block open is its drive thru window.

If your results differ from my prediction, and you do find support for a paid WiFi model, then you've got to decide how you can do the payment aspect of the service. Generally, rbs' suggestion of FON is a good one for you, as they can not only do the technical side of the WiFi operation, but can also handle credit card processing, and service-for-payment clock issues. Your cost for setting up merchant accounts that integrate securely with a WiFi metering portal of your own is going to be pretty hefty, unless you can offer your merchant bank tens of thousands of pounds per month in transaction volume. FON and other network operators take care of this for you, and you get a rather thin slice of the action as a network "reseller." [say 2 to 5% of net reciepts].

You could also put together a Web proxy front end using something like the ZyZEL box team lowkey mentioned upthread. You'd perhaps use the existing business' payment methods, and have them give you an SKU on their cash register, with which you and they could monitor your reciepts. Unless you work out some kind of transaction based time per enablement key generation, you're probably going to be selling user days, with a daily WEP key change as cschneid suggests. That's going to require that you or some one at the cafe log in daily to change the key, and there is also going to have to be a mutual willingness to share cash register data, so that you can be paid appropriately.

The last way of doing something is to take the risks yourself, order business lines, buy hardware, set up the WiFi hotspot as a "free" service to customers, and work out a flat monthly fee to the cafe owner for the service, which you then continue to support. If terrorists use your line for plotting nefarious activities, you answer to the Home Office when they come 'round, etc. You are responsible if somebody hacks someone else while they are both using your network services, etc. There are lots of unattractive aspects to being a small scale WiFi hotspot operator these days, which is one reason not every business is jumping on the bandwagon, but IANAL, and certianly not one familiar with the obligations such a person would have in the UK. So, you might want to speak with a solicitor of your own choosing, who is, before plunging ahead on your own.
posted by paulsc at 6:43 PM on October 31, 2006

As far as my use of it has convinced me, FON is essentially a turnkey solution for what you've asked for (it won't print a reciept but will email one to your user). You just need to get a DSL/Cable Line from somewhere and it'll do the rest.
posted by rbs at 6:52 PM on October 31, 2006

One thing I never seem to hear about is what happens if someone's downloading warez or mp3s and you get in trouble with the record companies or whatever. Wouldn't you be on the hook?
posted by chef_boyardee at 6:59 PM on October 31, 2006

chef: With FON you can setup your own custom greeting page/etc.

Include some legalese about how you are not responsible for internet usage, blah blah blah, and you should basically have covered your ass.

posted by jimmy0x52 at 7:30 PM on October 31, 2006

If some coffeeshop turned off wifi after x hours after a purchase, I would not patronize said shop. Way too annoying. If you want to lock it down do the WPA password up on a board, as previously suggested (WPA is more secure then WEP, so use wpa).

As a frequent coffee shopper/wifi user, I know if I'm sitting in a shop and using wifi for many hours I will buy more then enough to make up for the cost of bandwidth - otherwise I just feel like a leech and I drink a lot of coffee anyways.

Oh yeah, and if you try to do paid and are in a metro area - I guarantee that there are four other shops nearby that offer it free. The only reason the T-Mobile starbucks plan works out is for people traveling who need dependable connectivity, and don't want to search for a hotspot in every town. Well, that and people who just *love* starbucks, I guess...but there can't be too many of those.
posted by rsanheim at 8:31 PM on October 31, 2006

One other thing to consider is whether it's a great idea to become a WiFi hotspot operator in the face of the coming WiMAX revolution. Intel is shipping WiMAX silicon to laptop and retail product makers now, mainly for option cards, and Sprint/Nextel has announced plans for a nationwide WiMAX network in the U.S., to be operational in major cities beginning in 2007. Similar moves are afoot now in the UK.

WiFi won't die out immediately as WiMAX networks come on line, but WiMAX stands to be a technically better way to network thousands of machines in wide area metro networks than WiFi can ever be. Once WiMAX networks are widely available, the hassle factor of finding WiFi hotspots, as opposed to truly working from wherever you are within a WiMAX network, will doom WiFi for all but home and fixed small office uses. If you're a WiFi hotspot operator, the days of growing network use of your services will peak and decline, as WiMAX deploys, and many of your potential customers begin to use their own higher performance, secure WiMAX networks, from within your WiFi hotspot locations.
posted by paulsc at 8:58 PM on October 31, 2006

I agree with the make it as open as possible and deal with leeches case by case -- put up a polite sign saying free wireless but please keep drinking coffee. Don't cut people off or make them type in 64 hex decimals or whatever. I use internet cafes all the time and the best ones are completely open, and I spend a lot more money at those ones.
posted by Rumple at 8:59 PM on October 31, 2006

Best answer: Public IP might work. It's a Linux live CD, wich means you just boot a computer from the CD, and it's ready to go.

"Public IP provides hotspot operators with an extremely simple, highly versatile, FREE, open source hotspot solution. Public IP's ZoneCD is freely distributed software that has been created to help implement safe, free, WiFi hotspots. The ZoneCD can be used by all levels of free WiFi providers, from experienced programmers to coffee house cashiers. Setting up a free WiFi Hotspot can be as easy as hooking up an access point, popping in a CD and rebooting…"

Be sure to check out the feature page. I'm suprised at how much customization they built in.
posted by niles at 9:20 PM on October 31, 2006

(WPA is more secure then WEP, so use wpa)

Wouldn't that exclude everyone using a 802.11b adapter?
posted by timeistight at 2:42 AM on November 1, 2006

timeistight: Not everyone, but maybe older 802.11b adapters. The WPA spec can be used on either b or g, its not limited, but since its newer older cards might need a firmware update or might not be updatable at all.

See also:

Its a trade off, of course. I'm no expert, but I know that WEP can be cracked pretty easily (like in 10 minutes) by someone who wants to, assuming there is a lot of traffic to eavesdrop on. WPA or WPA2 are quite a bit tougher. Of course, this is just free wifi, so maximum security probably isn't the top priority.
posted by rsanheim at 2:36 PM on November 1, 2006

Response by poster: paulsc - your points about this being primarily a business proposition are all true, but not what I was asking. WiMAX is something to consider later, I feel.

Thanks everyone. Pointers on WEP/WPA and using social pressure rather than technical fiddling are appreciated.

I shall definitely be looking at Public IP and I may check out FON, although I'm not convinced it's quite what's needed. It does look like a very interesting project though.
posted by ajp at 6:24 AM on November 7, 2006

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