ZyXEL ZyAIR B-4000 Wireless Hotspot Gateway

By Joseph Moran

February 19, 2004

Want to run a hotspot for profit in your small venue? This gateway provides all the tools needed to help you with access, billing, and monitoring.

Model: B-4000
Price: $649
Pros: Inexpensive soup-to-nuts hotspot bundle
Cons: No user bandwidth limitation feature

When setting up a WLAN hotspot, particularly one where you will be charging for access, establishing the actual wireless network is often a relatively straightforward task. On the other hand, it can be quite a bit more complicated to set up the infrastructure to handle things like authentication and billing.

ZyXEL aims to simplify the set-up and operation of a hotspot with the ZyAIR B-4000 Wireless Hotspot Gateway .

Given the need for wide compatibility, the B-4000 sticks with 802.11b for its radio. The twin antennas are removable via standard reverse-SMA connectors, so one or both may be replaced with higher-gain units. If wireless encryption is desired, WEP is supported up to a 256-bit key level.

Included in the $649 B-4000 package price is the SP-100 statement printer, which is a compact unit that prints on a roll of paper similar to cash register receipt tape. A button on the front of the unit can be pre-programmed (multiple button presses to signify longer time increments), so once initial configuration is done, new accounts can be generated sans PC. (If repetitive button pressing isn't your thing, ZyXEL will soon offer an option with three programmable buttons. Apropos to an environment where multiple individuals may need different level of administrative privileges (i.e. a cafe or other retail establishment), the B-4000 provides multiple system accounts. The admin account provides full access to the unit, while manager and supervisor offer the ability to manage user accounts or view the status of the unit, respectively. There's also a "super subscriber" which is essentially an unrestricted user account for the purposes of conducting connectivity tests or other types of troubleshooting.

For non-troubleshooting scenarios, the B-4000 lets you define specific Web sites or client IP addresses that carry no restrictions. Another useful feature is the B-4000's so-called "walled garden" which can display up to 10 links on the login page that don't require authentication to access.

Account creation and authentication is handled entirely within the B-4000 itself, and if you're feeling generous, you can disable authentication to provide unchallenged access to all comers. Integration with an external account server isn't currently supported, though that's not likely to be a big downside for the small firms the product targets. ZyXEL says the unit can maintain 512 accounts, with 100 users online at once (though if you attempt anything close to that number, you'll likely not have many repeat customers).

Initially setting up the billing parameters on the B-4000 can be a bit intimidating, owing to the seemingly unending and interdependent plethora of radio buttons, drop down lists, and fields that need to be navigated and configured. However, after some time spent working with the pages and a bit of trail and error I had the system running smoothly. Luckily, in most cases, you'll only have to do this once, notwithstanding possible periodic price adjustments.

You can define time and cost increments (the sales tax percentage can also be calculated automatically), and implement a discount plan that makes access time cheaper as more increments are purchased. Accounts can be created via the aforementioned printers or via a Web-based panel, and receipts can be printed via a PC printer in lieu of the SP-100.

The B-4000 offers a reasonable number of options concerning the user's initial login experience. The standard login screen is a plain and unadorned white (though you can add a logo and some basic text), and an advanced option provides some rudimentary HTML customization capabilities (mainly text and background colors). You can also specify split login where a specific site is displayed in the top frame and the login box occupies the bottom. If you don't want or need to authenticate users, you can also redirect users to an external Web page.

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