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Real-world assessment of Wi-Fi hotspots

Posted: 06 Dec 2012     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Wi-Fi hotspots  small-office/home-office  Internet access 

In the past few years, establishments such coffee shops, restaurants and hotels have been offering Wi-Fi hotspots to entice clientele. However, as consumer connectivity expectations have grown, so has the proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots into every facet of our daily lives, including barber shops, corner pubs, fast-food restaurants, bookstores, car dealerships, department stores, and more. Today�s mobile Internet travels with everyone, and it has redefined what it means to �be connected.� But it wasn�t always this easy.

The first hotspots were small-office/home-office (SOHO)-class access points, generally used for residential connectivity, with a simple Wi-Fi connectivity process and coverage that was designed for household use.�While some businesses still try to leverage this approach, the method lacks the performance required for today's public hotspots. This increased demand for bandwidth has left those offering hotspot connectivity with a choice: either deal with poor performance and frustrated customers or install enterprise-class equipment to support use expectations.

Connectivity is so important to consumers, that it's not uncommon for them to select a destination or method of transport based on the cost and quality of Wi-Fi Internet access. It is also not uncommon for them to select one coffee shop over another based on high-speed Internet access. But, what do these consumers think about when looking for hotspot connectivity? And, how can a business ensure a positive experience for their customers?

First let's look at some of the common hotspot features in-depth and how they are facilitated.

Ease of use is a feature
Hotspots use the 802.11 open authentication method, meaning no authentication process at Layer 2 – at all. The customer's client device (laptop, iPad, smartphone, etc.) joins the hotspot's SSID, and is forwarded to the DHCP service, and the client device receives an IP address, default gateway and DNS. This, in its purest form, is hotspot connectivity.

At this point the client is now ready to access the Internet. One option is to just allow direct access. This is the easiest of all systems. It causes no difficulty with devices, because there is no user interaction.

However, most hotspot providers opt for a captive portal solution – whereby any attempt by the client device to either load a browser-based Internet session, check e-mail, etc., will all be redirected to an HTTP web page. By capturing all possible outbound ports, the customer's experience is changed from what they would get at home.

On this captive portal page, the customer can choose to accept the terms of service, and/or pay for Internet usage. The use of a captive portal makes accessing the Internet via a hotspot quite difficult for devices that do not have native web browsing capabilities. The more "hoops" a customer has to go through, the lower their valuation of the hotspot service.

The next feature that is on the top of customer's mind is the actual throughput of the connection. If Internet access is slow or inconsistent, customer complaints rise. Gone are the days when a 100-bed hotel could utilise a single T-1 line (1.5MBs) being shared between all the guests.

With the advent of streaming audio and video services – like Spotify, Pandora, Hulu and Netflix – users expectations of throughput have increased faster than most hotspot providers have increased bandwidth. A business can have the best Wi-Fi system available, with fantastic data-rates going over the RF medium, but without an adequately sized backhaul, end users will still complain.

Advanced features
Many customers are getting increasingly more sophisticated in their IT skills and use of technology, such as with public IP addresses, VPN support, and even higher in-bound needs. Many smaller hotspots won't need to address these more advanced features – but in airports, conference centres and hotels, the ability to offer access to these features will be paramount to those users who need them.

Now that we have a better understanding of the consumer expectation, how can a business measure and analyse hotspots to ensure performance?

There are two parts to every Wi-Fi hotspot service. The most obvious is the Wi-Fi component – the ability to use radio frequencies to transmit packets from the client devices to the Internet. The second, and just as important, is the backhaul to the Internet.

Many of the earlier pioneers of Wi-Fi systems mistakenly thought the main goal of designing Wi-Fi was all about the RF coverage, specifically the measure of received signal strength indicator (RSSI). This measurement is usually captured in decibels compared to one thousandth of a watt (dBm). Client devices have a calibrated receive sensitivity at different data rates, and they need a certain amount of RF signal above the ambient RF noise floor in able to operate.

Though measuring the RSSI in any given target area is certainly important and necessary, simply focusing on this alone is not sufficient. In order to capture, analyse, and report the performance of any given hotspot, it's necessary to measure the actual throughput of data, not merely the RF energy. To do this, we need tools that can consistently replicate and collect data in a known method and repeatable format.

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