October 26, 2004
Here's a device that creates dual WLANsperfect for letting a small business offer a public hotspot to customers, while maintaining a private network for its own use. While its features are powerful, getting it set up and properly configured will be a challenge for many.
Pros: 200mW 802.11g AP, bandwidth control
Cons: only WEP encryption, confusing interface and documentation
Many small businessesparticularly service and retail outletsare looking to increase revenue and/or customer traffic by providing wireless Internet hotspots in their locations. But when setting up a hotspot somewhere that a business network is already in place, it's important to ensure that the hotspot doesn't negatively impact the security of the existing network. A hotspot device that provides dedicated public and private networks like the EnGenius WSR-3800 is one way to achieve this, since the wireless gateway device enables you to separately configure and maintain both a public wireless hotspot and private network on a single device. The product, which is in its initial version, provides some powerful and useful features but getting it configured can be more trouble than one bargains for.
The $699.99 WSR-3800 is physically nondescript, housed in a low-profile chassis with four 10/100 ports (two private, two public) and an RJ-11 port that can be used for direct console access or to connect an optional ticket printer. The WSR-3800 has two external dipole antennas and a 200 mW 802.11g radio transmitter. Unfortunately you can't adjust the power output downward to limit the signal footprint.
Installation and setup
The WSR-3800 is easy enough to get online and functioning at a rudimentary level. A setup wizard walks you through the basic configuration settings for both the wired and wireless networks, but even if you've worked extensively with hotspot products of this kind before, most usersand especially less experienced onesmay climb a steep learning curve in getting the unit's configuration tailored to fit specific needs. The interface is a bit haphazard and some important configuration parametersthe place to create user accounts, to name just one exampleare tucked away in text links instead of buttons. This makes some features hard to find initially, and sometimes hard to find again, even after multiple visits.
User and device administration
Each of the three network interfaces on the WSR-3800public LAN, private LAN, and WLANcan be administered completely independently of the others, as individual subnets. This gives you greater flexibility and ability to keep customers and employee network traffic from intermingling.
The WSR-3800 offers several different ways to authenticate usersin addition to the credentials stored in the built-in database, users can also be authenticated via POP3, RADIUS, LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) or by account on an NT Domain.
The default user log-in page provided with the WSR-3800 is functional but spartan, and isn't at all customizable: You can't insert custom text or graphics into the page, and while you can specify certain web sites to be accessible without authentication (a so-called walled garden), there is no away to add these links to the default page. You can create and upload a replacement page of your own design, but this will be more work than many care to undertakeand then you must be sure to include the code that enables the authentication dialog. Even basic customizability to the default page would be welcome for those who don't wish to create their own log-in page from scratch.
Ticket to surf
Making the WSR-3800 much more convenient in heavy hotspot applications is an optional ticket printer ($339 alone or $799 total when purchased with the WSR-3800) that connects to the router via RJ-11 cable. With the ticket printer online, you create 2,000 additional "on demand" users with the press of a button. You can also define 10 different billing plans with customized parameters for each, including pricing, data or time limits, when active accounts will expire, and how long accounts will remain valid if not used. Rather than requiring the user to press a single button multiple times to denote the billing configuration desired (say, six times for billing level six, which can be imprecise and sometimes lead to mistakes) the printer offers a single-digit LCD and arrow buttons that let you select the plan number desired in advance and then generate the ticket with a single button press.
One minor annoyance is that the plan order on the printer (0-9) doesn't coincide with the interface on the WSR-3800 (1-0) which means you may either need to counter-intuitively configure the last slot, 0, as your lowest-end plan (the printer returns to 0 after each account generation) or else press an extra button each time you generate a new account at the printer.
With 802.11g support, a 200 mW transmitter, and support for separate public and private networks, the WSR-3800 gives a business everything needed to deploy a powerful hotspot without compromising its own network. The pricing is also competitive with similar products that don't necessarily include all of the capabilities the WSR-3800 gives you. But the confusing interface and documentation make will probably make customization difficult and achievable mostly by trial and error, particularly for those not well versed in the setup of a wireless hotspot.
If you need the features the WSR-3800 provides, it will ultimately serve you wellonce you've slogged through the configuration. But if you're looking for a hotspot device that's easy to setup, configure, and maintain, there are better (albeit less powerful) choices than the WSR-3800.