Public WiFi: the on-line consumer

People who know me, have heard me nag about open hotspot cafés in Brussels. My vision is that within 6 months, there should be a couple of dozen open Wi-Fi hotspots in Brussels so a guy with a laptop (like me) can find one within 1 km of wherever I happen to be in Brussels. I’m developing an idea for creating a set-up that is interesting for the Wi-Fi end-users, the infrastructure owners (e.g. a bar owner) and the ISP (that’s the hard part). More about that later.

As usual, Silicon Valley is way ahead of us:

“When I’m working at home, I wind up heading over there (Ritual Coffee Roasters) three or four times a day,” programmer Angus Durocher said in an e-mail interview. “The walk over there helps clear my head, flirting with the staff helps ensure I don’t lose all verbal communication skills, and at this point, I’m not sure I can survive without their coffee.”
from Cafe 2.0: After the Gold Rush

Because this should not lead to a bar full of laptop surfers not looking or talking at each other, there are even initiatives to limit that:

“We thought about what if you could use technology to reduce the zombie effect or to promote (people) to be more conscious and less alienated from their neighbors,” Savage said.
Wi-Fi users in a certain cafe would encounter a login window when they first sign on, which would prompt them to enter a Friendster-like profile that would let other cafe dwellers know when they were in that cafe.
from A Tool To Wake Up WiFi Zombies

Check out Plazes.com for another social geolocation project, one that already works now!

How is a public hotspot different from your home WiFi router setup?
Typically there are things that you want to avoid: 1 user gobbling up all the bandwidth with streaming video, people using BitTorrent (kills your upload bandwidth and as such your quality of service), people sniffing other people’s PCs to see if they can find a security hole. So you need bandwidth management, a better firewall, and maybe also a homepage when the user first starts up his browser. This is called a ‘wireless captive portal’.

Even if the standard consumer WiFi router does not do this yet, there are ways to make them better suited for the job – by upgrading the firmware. Most customized solutions seem to be based on the Linksys WRT54 (and later products), because they are really small Linux-based computers that can be easily upgraded to a modified firmware. (Great thinking from Linksys! I just installed a new router and it’s the WRT54GS, just for the reason of upgradeability).

Here are some examples of software to enhance WiFi routers (mostly Linksys):

Sveasoft Alchemy (yearly $20 USD subscription fee)

Our firmware adds dozens of sophisticated features to these sub-$100 routers turning them into the equivalent of products costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. (check forum for features)

nocat.net (free)

NoCatAuth is our original “catch and release” captive portal implementation. It provides a simple splash screen web page for clients on your network, as well as a variety of authenticated modes.

WiFiDog.org

The Wifidog project is a complete and embeddable captive portal solution for wireless community groups or individuals who wish to open a free Hotspot while still preventing abuse of their Internet connection.

openwrt.org (free)

OpenWrt is a Linux distribution for the Linksys WRT54G. Instead of trying to cram every possible feature into one firmware, OpenWrt provides only a minimal firmware with support for add-on packages

eWRT (free)

At the time of writing, ewrt differentiates itself from the other WRT54G distributions by providing a captive portal based on NoCatSplash and a writeable jffs2 filesystem for storing content.

dd-wrt.com (free)

DD-WRT is simply a project which is based on the official GPL Sources of Sveasoft Alchemy.

hyperwrt.org (free)

The goal of this project is to add a limited set of features to the last Linksys firmware, extending its possibilities but staying close to the official firmware.

SputnikNet ($19.95 per access point per month)

SputnikNet™ enables you to run a managed wireless network over the Internet. Simply plug Sputnik APs into broadband, and you’re ready to offer free, branded, or fee-based Wi-Fi service. SputnikNet is affordable: you can manage as many access points and wireless networks as you like.

PatronSoft FirstSpot (from $95)

FirstSpot is a Windows-based Wi-Fi hotspot management software (sometimes also known as hotspot access controller or wireless gateway) designed to track and secure your visitor-based networks or Wi-Fi Hotspots in a centralized way.

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2 thoughts on “Public WiFi: the on-line consumer”

  1. that’s funny. I’m from the wifidog team and I was just in brussels two weeks ago. I thought about trying to hook up with the local geeks – but decided that I wasn’t there long enough.

    word to the wise. chose wifidog. nycwireless and torontowireless have as well as wireless london (client only -not auth) and paris sansfil (still testing it). We have approx 8 developpers working on it. and it is being made to work with both freifunk and cuwin meshing software.

    check out the googlemaps hack that pulls data real-time from the central server:
    http://map.ilesansfil.org

    cheers.

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