The Wi-Fi revolution seems to have been fought from the ground up, writes Rob Bamforth of Bloor Research. War chalking, hitching a ride on unprotected corporate wireless LANs. It all seems very subversive. The truth is somewhat different.
Like other ideas before it - radio, home computers, the Internet, cybercafes - wireless networks have moved from hobbyist fun to big business. Hotspots are becoming points of presence for national and international carriers. After all, do hotels or coffee shops really want to deal with the day to day IT realities of running a wireless LAN?
You could outsource the IT side, of course, or it could be centrally managed by the carrier. But what if you want to have your own little hotspot, with your own charging system, cyber café style? If you have a network connection and really want to sell wireless access time over that network, there is a cheap easy way to do it.
French company Sagem has a hotspot access controller in a box. Nothing new in that idea, but this includes a built-in authentication and billing system. There's no need for a server or even a local personal computer to run the hotspot. The box houses a wireless LAN access point, router and the mini payment system. There are three versions of the product. The F@ST 5100 has no built-in modem, the 5600 has an ADSL modem for a standard telephone line and the 5640 for an ISDN line.
Access is controlled and managed by a short-term user name and password. This is generated from a small printer attached to the access controller. The printer has - software writers make note - only one button. Each time it is pressed in quick succession amounts to a time period for access. One press gives half an hour, three presses 90 minutes, and so on. Laptop users don't need any special software. When they launch a browser, a login window appears and the user name and password are used for access for the paid for period of time. Simple, eh?
Simple, and potentially effective - no complex contracts, no complex IT infrastructure. This is a low risk approach to adding 'hotspot' to complement an existing service. The access point will only service a small area and, in theory, up to 100 simultaneous users. Bandwidth and the use of 802.11b might be the only constraints. The hotspot operator can access the unit from a web browser if they want more control, and can configure the access time, login page and even offer free access to certain pages, perhaps for advertising.
This is a simple idea, simply executed. There may be challenges concerning reselling access from the broadband carrier, but otherwise this is self-contained. It may seem in the spirit of home brew computing or radio hams, but it adds another interesting dimension to the growth of hotspots.