A Hotspot System for the Wirelessly Hopeless

By Jill Harrington

April 28, 2004

The iCafe system allows venues to inexpensively setup for two different types of payment (at the register or on the Web), without requiring partnership with any particular wireless ISP.

Small coffeehouses and cafes that want to keep up with the Starbucks of the world by offering customers a hotspot along with hot coffee now have a wireless option that won't break the bank

San Diego-based Tx Systems -- long a player with smart card systems -- now offers a pay-as-you-go/do-it-yourself hotspot solution with the rollout of iCafe Wi-Fi. It aims to bring wireless connectivity to mom and pop shops that otherwise might not have the budget or technical know-how to create a hotspot.

Tx Systems partnered with industry leader D-Link for use of its wireless hardware to form the backbone of iCafe Wi-Fi.

"D-Link is one of the top one or two companies in the wireless field," said Jason Wimp, director of operations. "I'm confident in this partnership."

iCafe Wi-Fi enables the venue to create a wireless network and sell access in time increments of its choice to customers that are using their own wireless-enabled laptops.

"The nice thing about the product is that it can be configured however the client wants," said Jason Wimp, director of operations. Usernames and passwords can be created with expiration times and dates. "If they want to set up so it's only usable for day, that's fine. Or you can set up use for a block of time -- in and out over the course of several days, no problem," he said.

iCafe offers two ways to complete the wireless access transaction: with a ticket printer that will issue usernames and access codes for the wireless network; or with an already-existing merchant account on the client's Web site. (This would likely please the average barista, who would be removed from the purchase equation altogether.)

Tx Systems is pushing the printer option, at least to start. "The Web site is not a standard, canned feature -- we have to do some customization," Wimp said. Tx Systems will work with interested customers to develop a page suitable to store, then load it onto the Wi-Fi hardware. "We're developing a tool where [setting up a Web site interface] is all streamlined, and clients could do that feature on their own, but it's not a novice-type thing to do," Wimp says. "So right now, it's just one-on-one."

The site feature makes more sense at hotspots where attendants aren't available, such as airports, Wimp says. For small businesses, "I think the printer is the best solution; it doesn't matter how a customer pays -- cash or credit card."

The cost is roughly the same for either option of iCafe Wi-Fi: $1,000 for the option with the ticket printer, and $699 for the version without the printer, but with a few hundred tacked on for the customized Web site.

Credit card exchanges online use SSL encryption for a secure transaction. Tx Systems says it goes one step beyond that to protect users. There is a secure gateway component protecting data transactions while using an iCafe wireless network.

"It's not like an off-the-shelf component that you could go into CompUSA to buy," Wimp says. There's an additional secure gateway component that prevents hackers from coming in and bringing down the system, according to Wimp.

Nuts and Bolts

The iCafe Wi-Fi package includes the D-Link DWL-700AP 2.4GHz 802.11b wireless access point, a D-Link DSA-3100 public/private hotspot gateway; the QuickStart installation guide; and either the DSA-3100P ticket printer, or a merchant account Web site setup.

Who can use iCafe Wi-Fi? Interested clients need a computer using Windows 2000 or XP and a broadband connection. If a shop wants to go with the Web site interface way of handling transactions, a merchant account for processing credit cards needs to be in place.

iCafe Wi-Fi was the logical next step for Tx Systems after the release in late 2002 of its iCafe smart card system for Internet access, also aimed at small coffee shops and cafes. The original iCafe has customers from Nigeria to United Arab Emirates to the company's hometown of San Diego, according to Brad Kuemmel of Tx Systems. The hope, obviously, is that iCafe Wi-Fi will catch on in the same way. Right now it has only a handful of Wi-Fi customers, according to Kuemmel.

"When we set out to build the Wi-Fi product about 18 months ago, the original plan was to create a product to offer both PC setup and wireless in one basket," Wimp said. "But it became clear they needed to be separate products."

Wimp said the company would work with iCafe users who want to go wireless to get a good deal on the Wi-Fi option.

Tx Systems didn't come up with this turnkey hotspot package with a printer idea first, though. ZyXEL's ZyAIR B-4000 Wireless Hotspot Gateway is a ready-made wireless network with printer for under $650.

Wimp said the products are similar. The difference: "They're coming at it from the wireless side, we're coming at it from the wired side. We partnered with D-Link for hardware, and they're creating their own."

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