It's not just for coffee shops anymore. Whatever your business, if you have visitors of any kind, chances are they both want and expect wireless Internet access. That can be a challenge, especially to a business without IT staff. How do you provide wireless access, and make sure it's up and running whenever guests need it, while keeping your business's own network safe?

You may think your only choice is either to create a virtual wireless network or a password-protected system that lets guests use your company's network. But there's a third alternative that can save a lot of hassle: Have an outside vendor provide a Wi-Fi hotspot.

In the past few years, companies have emerged that can create a hotspot at your location for you, providing equipment, maintenance, and even technical support if trouble arises. You're responsible for unpacking and plugging in the wireless routers they send, and for providing an Internet connection—and that's all.

Better security

For many companies, an outsourced Wi-Fi solution provides better security than trying to go it alone. "Often we notice small businesses might have gone to Staples and purchased a router themselves," notes Eric Warnke, CEO of Mesh Canada, which provides advertising supported or low-cost W-iFi hotspots to businesses. "We'll walk through the door and point out that all the default passwords are still in place, and we'll show them that we could have interrupted their business. That's a big risk of a security breach. We can provide a secure network."

And offering a Wi-Fi hotspot actually gives you more network security than not offering one, notes Ron Pike,  IT Administrator for the Seattle office of ZGF Architects LLP. "It's better for us not to have them connect to our wired network," he explains. With a WiFi network available, "that's less likely to happen."

What to ask a vendor

Here are some questions to consider when selecting a vendor for an outsourced Wi-Fi hotspot:

  • How will you ensure security for our internal network? The vendor should provide a virtual local area network (VLAN) that is completely separate from your internal network and uses only your Internet connection. "For companies that are really super concerned about security, we can physically segregate everything, so that there's absolutely no question of security risk," Warnke says.
  • What kind of controls can you impose? Since the Wi-Fi hotspot is completely separated from your network, there are no security risks to worry about, but you may want to impose some limits so that visitors don't overuse your bandwidth. This can include "traffic shaping" that allots only a certain amount of bandwidth to the visitor network, or disallows certain types of traffic, such as YouTube or peer-to-peer sites.
  • Can you password-protect the hotspot? Most vendors can, so the bigger question will be, do you want to password-protect it? For ZGF Architects, the answer is yes. "There are hotels nearby, and many other private offices," Pike says. "We prefer our bandwidth isn't taken up by people who aren't here for business purposes." On the other hand, Roger Newton, owner of The Canadian Brew House in Alberta says, "There can't be passwords. If you're going to offer Wi-Fi, offer it to everybody. If there was a password, we'd have a lot fewer customers using the service."
  • What will visitors see when they connect? There should be an opening splash page, reinforcing your brand and reminding visitors that they have you to thank for their connection. Many companies also include a terms of service that users must agree to before they sign on.
  • If there are multiple access points, can they be configured as a single network? Unless you only want to offer Wi-Fi in your reception area or conference room, you will need more than one access point for your visitor network. If your company is monitoring the network, that job will be easier if staff can do it from a single administrative "dashboard."
  • Will you provide technical support and maintenance? In an ideal world, there will be few support issues, especially if visitors don't need to type in a password to use the network. But unless you have staff on hand with the time and skills to deal with whatever problems do arise, you should make sure the vendor provides these services. "It needs to be consistently available and easily accessed," Newton says. "And that's a little outside of our realm."