‘Hotspots’ provide high return on investment

In our connected world, seeing people frantically check their e-mail before boarding a plane has become commonplace. Instantaneous communications are par for the course, which is why public wireless LANs have come into their own.

Public wireless LANs have their own lingo associated with the technology. Perhaps the most popular is the term “hotspot.” A hotspot is a public place with wireless Internet access available for those wishing to secure a transmission. Most hotspots are places such as airports, hotels, trade shows, conference facilities and the like.

There are Web sites devoted to tracking down and reporting on hotspots. This type of underground commitment has made them the new “A” list—if your facility makes the list, well, you will probably see a little more traffic—both through your doors and over your network.

The principles of design

The first requirement in creating an optimal WLAN would be open connectivity. Because the whole purpose of a public WLAN is remote access, the user needs to be able to move freely throughout the hotspot facility. A business traveler who accesses an e-mail in an airport at Gate 14, Concourse B may need to check it again in Concourse A. Open connectivity allows for such roaming. Various access points need to be strategically placed throughout the property or facility to ensure that this constant access is available. If not, your public WLAN may be called unfriendly and no one wants that designation.

Most WLANs employ 802.11b, the most widely utilized wireless communications standard. But if you are serious about creating a scalable WLAN, you may want to invest a little more time and money and incorporate 802.11g and even 802.11a in an effort to be prepared for future endeavors.

Another key element of your system should be controls that allow users to tap into Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). This is an important feature because many who will use your system will need to access their company’s network and many of those are run via VPNs.

What’s the catch?

If it all sounds too good to be true, well, you are right. One of the biggest issues surrounding public wireless LANs and their usage is security and secured communications.

Because a publicly accessible wireless LAN needs to be designed with connectivity so people can actually tap into it, many feel this type of openness compromises security. Potential security breaches include elusive hackers who monitor open networks for the sole purpose of gaining information about those who log on. Though the concern is valid, it should not be enough to deter a user from at least considering a public WLAN. There are professional WLAN designers and installers who may be able to allay such fears and address any concerns.

The other side of the equation is that public WLANs are business endeavors —though some may not want to admit to it, they are along the lines of large facilities installing large-scale phone switches and brokering out long distance to their customers (think nursing homes, hotels, etc.). By looking at it from that standpoint, pitching the idea of a public WLAN may not be such a hard sell after all, and deciding to forge ahead and buy one may prove prudent in the end because of the high return on investment.

One point to note is that billing remains an issue—it is not always easy to bill someone who just logs on for a minute or two, which is why some hotspots don’t charge, they just promote it as an added benefit of being their customer. Don’t fret, though—you can hit ‘em with advertising if you want, a nice way to make up some of the expense associated with hosting a hotspot. And you thought that only America Online could do that?

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.