Pronto Networks Pronto Hotspot Controller
September 04, 2002
Businesses that want to offer hotspot access typically need to do a lot of installation and configuration work themselves. The Pronto Networks Pronto Hotspot Controller is designed for these situations -- and despite some initial support issues, it works surprisingly well.
Model Number PN-CPP202
Setting up hotspots is the foremost topic of interest in 80211-based wireless networking today, and the amount of activity in this space is impressive. However, the public still knows little about the phenomenon, and many businesses wanting to set up service have little experience with doing so and cannot afford a spendy consultant. For those businesses that want to offer hotspot service we review the Pronto Hotspot Controller, a hotspot enabler designed for businesses, such as cafes and coffeeshops, that want to add high-speed Internet access to their offerings. The Pronto Hotspot Controller handles all aspects of such a service offering, including access control and billing.
Good remote monitoring and updating
Confusing default setup
At first blush, setting up the Pronto box was frustrating. However, the problems provided a learning experience that a perfectly smooth setup could not offer -- and it was fun to work through.
The only real knock on Pronto's setup is its documentation. The documentation had grainy, poor quality graphics. It lacked good explanations for setting up the office support system (OSS). Worse yet, it didn't include a number for support. Pronto asserted that it was in the process of revising its documentation and seemed glad for my suggestions. The company says that the support number is now in every box.
Setting up the OSS
In theory, Pronto's Web-based setup is straightforward. In practice it can be a little confusing when undertaken cold. Pronto wasn't aware who had been assigned to review its product and couldn't schedule the online walkthrough process it normally completes with clients.
When contacted Pronto gladly offered to put things back on track. A representative walked us through the setup. By this time, we were pretty familiar with the system, but certainly a walkthrough was helpful, as we still encountered problems are still problems. The OSS currently has no help functions. Also, there are inconsistencies in the process: for example, when setting up a new franchise, the OSS forces a second address line. You must input something to continue.
Usually the OSS is preset with default information before shipment. In our case, we attempted to set it up without any input from Pronto. The company says it controls this process and knows its customer in advance.
It's clear the company strives to make the setup flexible, almost too much so. It's easy to create multiple locations, price plans and levels of quality of service (QoS) to prioritize. You can mix and match them easily. Pronto's menu-driven system is a touch clunky, however, but company reps plan changes in this element going forward.
One suggestion is to offer more preconfigured templates. Allowing clients to save custom templates and reapply them would be helpful. In addition, you'll want to plan your pricing system in advance (which is good business advice anyway!), as the system allows modification but not deletion of mistakes. (You have to call support for that.) Think through it first -- these are deliberate security controls.
The Gateway and Security
The gateway setup was also slightly confusing because the documentation didn't explain it well. It's quite simple: Pronto's system can receive bandwidth from DSL, cable or wireless. The box has demilitarized zone (DMZ) connection for the venue's access, which passes traffic through without authentication. The DMZ can be configured to allow multiple access points to be daisy-chained with CAT-5 Ethernet cable.
The unit disburses signals through DHCP from a preset private IP range. These instructions were also a tad unclear. You can choose any private IP nomenclature for the wireless and DMZ gateways. Pronto's next firmware release in September will incorporate default IP values to clarify matters.
You may then choose the IP range that DHCP will deliver, the number of simultaneous users and more. The service set identifier (SSID) of the card is preconfigured and can be set to any of about 50 others.
Security is handled through IPSec encryption, which is transparent to the user. The end user launches a browser and gets an authentication screen. If you are planning to offer hotspot access, you'll want to prepare some sort of introductory documentation to customers, most importantly explaining how to disable the wireless equivalent protocol (WEP) -- if customers have WEP enabled, the access cards in your customer's laptops won't associate with the network.
Turning Up the Box
The interesting problems began when we plugged in the box. It just didn't seem to work.
Our cable connection didn't feed the box and our laptop card wouldn't find it. Also the DMZ port didn't light up. By trial and error we found that running it from our router inside our firewall worked. The DMZ still wouldn't light however.
These problems revealed some interesting aspects to the Pronto setup. It turns out that the DMZ port comes configured for daisy chaining. Pronto customers have requested it and an active DMZ port could be a physical security risk if enabled. Remember to use a crossover cable to feed this port.
Pronto support finally decided the connection problem was an IP cache-flushing issue, due to be updated in a September release. My Netgear router's DHCP implementation could automatically refresh the IP address. The cable modem could not.
This was getting to be fun now. Pronto configured a quick patch on the fly for the caching issue and remotely reconfigured the box for a DMZ port (done before shipping normally) with a remote firmware upgrade. Voila! After power cycling everything (an important step) it all worked fine. It takes about two or three minutes for the upgrade to take and another couple of minutes after power cycling for the new DHCP address to register. We were surfing after that.
Pronto's remote monitoring and upgrade process works quite well. Its real-time monitoring system seems very sound. We also confirmed that its upcoming DHCP upgrade works fine.
Throughput tests came next. I tested a 1450 kbps size packet with 50 transmissions and pings per location. This packet size typically produces throughputs about half of what actual FTP speeds are.
The unit accepts a PC Card radio card so it's important to understand the beam path of the card to maximize coverage. It's possible to use different radio and antenna combinations to fine-tune a location. I set this box up as a common wall mount. A ceiling mount might be more effective.
Inside the room median throughput was 2.57 Mbps and response times averaged 6 milliseconds (ms). From the back of the building (about 50 feet) through four walls, throughput ran from 1.97Mbps to 2.90Mbps with response times ranging from 0-10 ms.
At 130 ft outdoors and through three walls, link and signal quality showed "poor." There was approximately 2 percent packet loss. Throughputs ran from 859.25kbps to 2.54Mbps. The median was 2.28Mbps and response times ranged from 10 ms to 201 ms with an average of 14 ms. Very strong for this packet size.
Despite some early hiccups the Pronto Hotspot Controller worked very well. Pronto's support staff was responsive and quick to diagnose issues. The measure of a company's character is more noticeable in adversity than success. This is definitely a box worth considering if you're planning a hotspot deployment.