Data Doctor: Setting up free Wi-Fi for customers at your business

Making free Wi-Fi available for your guests is a great way to attract and retain customers, especially in restaurants and coffee shops, but if you do it wrong, it can backfire.

I can't really tell you if it's something that you can do yourself, but I can give you my suggestions so you can determine that for yourself.

The first consideration I'd suggest is assess whether you have the bandwidth to support extra users and if so, how many. We have all checked into hotels or gone to restaurants that advertise free Wi-Fi, but when you attempt to use it, it's virtually useless.

This poor performance can come from a lack of bandwidth or setting the public access too low for the number of customers that you want to serve.

If you leave your Wi-Fi connection open for anyone to use without an access code, it's virtually impossible to control the usage (and overall performance) so I would strongly recommend that you set  up access that requires your customers to ask for a passcode (or you can post it inside your business).

Make absolutely sure that you segment your public access separate from your private wireless network and use strong encryption settings for your private connections. I would also recommend turning off the ‘SSID broadcast' on your private Wi-Fi network so your visitors won't even see it show up on their ‘available networks' screen.

If you are using a basic consumer grade wireless router, log in to the administrative account and see if it has the ability to have a separate ‘guest' access. If it does, only use it if it also has the option to limit the bandwidth used by the guests or your internal private users could suffer performance issues.

If you want a lot more control and are comfortable updating the firmware on your router, you can use free third-party packages that add the additional functionality such as bandwidth controls and a 'captive portal.'

Captive portals allow you to create a ‘terms of service' page that the user must agree to before using your free Wi-Fi connection. It's also a place to add some branding or advertising offers after the users click on the ‘I Agree' button.

A popular open-source option is CoovaAP ( http://www.coova.org/CoovaAP ) but understand that open-source means that you will have to rely on support forums for help and that you will potentially void the warranty on your wireless router.

If the firmware upgrade goes wrong, you may end up with a paperweight as well, so updater beware!

Configuring your router after the update won't be something simple either, so if you aren't at an intermediate level of understanding in router configuration, I'd recommend staying away from this option.

Another option is to purchase a wireless router that's designed for businesses that has these features built-in and will come with support from the manufacturer. You will need to research them online or work with a service company that supports businesses to understand the differences for this type of product as the prices can range from $100 to $1,000.

One last consideration: content filtering. I'd strongly recommend that you think about what you don't want accessed via your free Wi-Fi (adult material, gambling sites, etc.). Not only can you make sure objectionable sites aren't accessed via your network, you can control bandwidth hogging sites (streaming video, etc.), especially if you don't have a lot of bandwidth to share.

I highly recommend that you look at all of the security and content filtering that using http://opendns.com will provide your business if you decide to offer free Wi-Fi.

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