Offering a wireless network to patrons and/or employees makes good business sense for some entrepreneurs. However, security and cost are two factors that should be considered.
The cable modem will soon follow its dial-up predecessor into oblivion. To keep in step with patrons' and employees' needs to use laptops and smartphones, many brick and mortar institutions house wi-fi. However, as with any online connectivity program, issues surrounding cost and security come into play almost immediately. How, then, should you go about offering free or paid wi-fi?
How to Offer Free or Paid Wi-Fi in Your Store or Office: Consider Your Needs and Resources
The first thing you'll need to consider is who will be using your wi-fi. Are you providing access to your entire company, and if so, how many employees do you have? Would you also want those visiting your office to have guest access? Are you providing access to patrons that frequent your store? Consider your turnover--what type of store do you have and how long do you want people to stay in their seats? How many people will be accessing your wi-fi service at the same time? Once you collect this information and put some thought into it, you can determine whether to offer your service for free or for a fee and what your equipment needs are.
Though it may not be an obvious concern, Dan Guido, a security consultant with iSec Partners in New York City, recommends that business owners check to see if they have an ample amount of electrical outlets in the customer area to allow them to recharge their devices. "The density of power outlets is the defining quality of whether people are going to aggressively use your wi-fi or not because if there aren't any around, then it becomes a very transient activity."
How to Offer Free or Paid Wi-Fi in Your Store or Office: Getting the Proper Equipment
The next step to offering public wi-fi in any establishment should be to purchase an effective router and Internet service plan. Service fees will vary by area. But it's important to let your provider know that the service is for a business and to research the estimated amount of people that will be accessing your store's wi-fi at a single time so that you receive a plan for the appropriate connection speeds. For a wireless business account, you may need to provide either your own router or an antenna that can attach to a router supplied by the Internet company to ensure that everyone is able to receive a signal. "The consumer routers that you can buy in Best Buy are really going to be sufficient for this task, although I would suggest getting a more premium one simply because they can handle more users at once," says Guido. He recommends the Apple AirPort Extreme (retail: $179) because it runs beefier software and can handle up to 50 users at once. From there, Guido advises that you turn on a WPA system.
Wi-Fi Protected Access technologies, also known as WPA and WPA2, force you to enter a password from the router's hot spot and then sets up an encrypted (encoded) channel between you and the IP. He, however, stresses that there still remains an abundance of wiggle room when it comes to WPA security. There're a lot of different ways around [WPA and WPA2 security]. For example, you can give everyone the same password in the coffee shop, then some evil person might be able to hack the traffic and gain access to users information, says Guido. "Nevertheless, it makes it more difficult [for that to happen] and it does break a lot of standard hacking tools," Guido adds.
Be warned that eliminating passive sniffing, that is, a program that can intercept and decode private data being passed over a wireless network, is virtually impossible to do cheaply and without outside help. "You can mitigate that risk, but you can't eliminate it," Guido says, citing Firesheep as an example of sniffing software. Firesheep is a Firefox plugin that can allow hackers to intercept passwords and authenticate credentials for other users connected to the wireless network who visit insecure sites.
How to Offer Free or Paid Wi-Fi in Your Store or Office: Free or Not to Free?
Michael Phillips is the co-founder and president of anywwwhere, a New York-based company that provides business-to-client Internet services and end-user support. He says that most of his clients, which include coffee shops, independent lunch establishments, delis, fast food restaurants, and hotels, still use paid models for the most part. He estimates that business owners likely choose to have patrons pay for their wi-fi usage to prevent loitering. "Paid model would be for businesses that have smaller seating areas," says Phillips. "And they offer food and they need to have available seating for that percentage of customers that choose to stay and eat or drink or whatever." He notes that Starbucks's recent move from paid to free wi-fi is a boon for its management because the majority of the business is to-go, rather than a restaurant where people need available seating to eat.
The Bryant Park Hotel, a small luxury boutique hotel in Midtown Manhattan, charges $9.95 a day for wi-fi access. According to Christopher Jevas, the director of sales, the wi-fi is fee-based for regular customers but is offered for free with corporate accounts as an added amenity. "In urban areas, it's generally the rule that hotels are charging for Internet access because they've got business or very high end leisure travelers that are willing to pay the fees for the same service," says Phillips. "In less urban and rural areas, there's just more price sensitivity, and so you'll see it being given away for free."
Dig Deeper: Staying Connected: Wi-Fi Hot Spots to Go
How to Offer Free or Paid Wi-Fi in Your Store or Office: Password Protection
Offering the wi-fi password as a condition of purchase makes "great business sense and it's great technical security sense," says Guido. By doing this, "you gain the limited protections that WPA offers you," he says. "There's no reason I can see not to do it." But, there is a catch. In order to reap the full benefits of WPA, the password needs to be changed frequently. According to Guido, many people looking to intercept wireless traffic for devious purposes may not be willing to show their face inside of the shop as long as the password key is changed on a regular basis. Furthermore, this will deter residents in nearby homes and apartment buildings from siphoning your wi-fi network as a freebie.
If you're taking the free route, as an alternative to handing out a stock password on slivers of paper or posting it openly, Guido suggests printing the password on a receipt for customers after they've completed their purchase transactions. Phillips explains that the software used by anywwwhere creates a unique code for each customer after a purchase - "authenticated access via receipt." After their initial login using the password, the customer will have a set amount of time to use the wi-fi network before their access expires. The owner of the business is able to set the limit on the expiration time period. Phillps refers to this method as free wi-fi with restrictions.
How to Offer Free or Paid Wi-Fi in Your Store or Office: Other Methods of Security
"It can actually turn out a bit negative for the business owner if [the customer] walks in with a laptop and tries to use the service and it's too slow or it doesn't work...,"says Guido. "You need to make sure that there isn't anyone who's abusing that service by using too much bandwidth and you need to make sure no one is using it for illegal purposes, like to download copyrighted material off the Internet, which can get your own business in trouble because the ISP (Internet service provider) you bought only identifies you."
To safeguard your business from security breaches such as these, it's very important to use a content filtering system such as OpenDNS to assuage these additional risks. "What OpenDNS can do, as long as you register with the service - it's all online and you can configure your router to use it - you can block all sorts of file sharing websites and illegal websites and porn and all these other things that might have an adverse affect on your business in terms of subpoenas or legal problems, or an adverse affect on other patrons such as someone viewing a website that's very offensive."
The router that you purchase will give you the option of enacting rate limiting controls. That is, you can "restrict the amount of data transferred over a time period, or restrict the maximum speed that any one user can have," explains Guido. "In general, what you want to do is limit the amount of data in a single day's period or to lower the maximum speed." The type of rate limiting options that you have will vary based upon the model of the router that you're using.
If you have a chain of businesses, Guido also recommends a service called Meraki. "I'm not sure that it makes sense for a place that has only one location, but as you grow and maybe need to manage more than just one router or one wireless IP, they seem like a very good option." The company offers access points from multiple locations that connect to a single website that allow you to monitor your users and traffic. Through the service, the wi-fi system can divert users to a landing page where they must agree to a terms of service. The system can also implement rate limiting controls.