Eventually hotspots might become so widespread that you could sit down almost anywhere and seamlessly connect to the Internet, much in the same way that we expect from a cell phone today. For the moment, though, hotspots are few and far between. This section looks at four types of hotspots:
Airports are huge enterprises, like small cities in their own right. Management of such a large-scale organization depends heavily on contracted services. It follows that hotspots in airports are likely to be installed and run by a specialist contractor. In some cases, individual airlines have decided to install hotspots in their executive lounges. However, the use of wireless really needs some central coordination to avoid polluting the air with many overlapping systems. Ideally, a single contractor would manage hotspots; this contractor would install coverage in suitable areas and then obtain a cut of revenues from subscribers. This approach fits the brand model discussed earlier. Naturally, the airport authority would want to be paid as well. In the case of cell phone base stations, payment is often in the form of a fixed annual fee.
Hotspots in the airport are likely to use dedicated hotspot controller units that are placed in locked equipment closets. They may even have a local authentication server capable of storing a copy of the central authentication server's entries.
Hotels are much smaller than airports but are still unlikely to want to get involved with the installation and operation of the wireless network. Features such as network access are becoming an important differentiator for hotels attracting business customers, and many hotel chains have signed exclusive deals with hotspot companies to install equipment on their premises. Often this includes both wired and wireless network access. In these cases, there is probably a dedicated hotspot controller installed in the hotel.
Coffee shops or so-called cyber cafés use hotspots to attract business customers or even private customers who don't have high-speed Internet access at home. These enterprises are too small to need a dedicated hotspot controller. Fortunately, there are several alternatives available.
The first is to forward all the data from the access point back to some central location where a single controller can support many coffee shop type operations. The connection could be done using a dedicated lease line connection or a frame relay connection. The problem is that the cost of such connections is quite high. The second approach is to have a special access point with built-in hotspot controller functions. Finally you can have a special access point with the ability to tunnel data across the Internet to a central site with a hotspot controller. This is the same as the first option (leased line) except that it uses a regular Internet connection to reduce cost.
The idea of a hotspot in the home is novel but contentious. Many people have broadband Internet connections to their homes. Some people share them with their neighbors, using wireless links between the houses. Here is the contentious part: Such sharing may be in violation of the contract customers have with the broadband service supplier. The legality of setting up home-based hotspots is something that a person should confirm before starting. Anyway, back to the point: If you share your Internet connection with neighbors, why not with anyone else within range? Maybe you are next door to a convenience store or in a multiunit dwelling. There could be many people who would like to use your broadband connection. If you have not turned on wireless security, there might be people using it already without your knowledge!
Some companies have had the idea to turn this into a sort of cottage industry. They market and sell hotspot wireless access to subscribers and then sign up private homes to be hotspots. We call these companies "cottage hotspot" companies. The idea goes something like this. At your home you have a computer, a Wi-Fi LAN, and a broadband Internet connection. You are prepared to let others join your Wi-Fi LAN and get Internet access for a small fee, but you have no way to collect the money. You contact the cottage hotspot company and sign up to allow your Wi-Fi LAN to be accessed. They provide you with some special software to load on your PC. This special software runs in the background and performs authentication of would-be customers. It also communicates (via your Internet connection) to a central server owned by the cottage hotspot company, and reports how many people are using your network.
At the end of the month, the cottage hotspot company sends you a check with a payment based on how successful your hotspot has been. The company, of course, is billing its subscribers and keeping a good share of the proceeds as well. Subscribers can find out where participating hotspots are from the company's Web site. The hope of the cottage hotspot companies is that, if enough homes subscribe, wireless access will be available on every street.
Home hotspots are a neat idea. It costs a person nothing to set up because he already has the equipment. The big threat to the idea comes from the reaction by the broadband Internet providers. Obviously, they would like to sell access to everybody on the street separately rather than having them all share one connection. Today, some broadband providers' contracts even limit the connection to one computer in the home, although many people have a network of computers at home. The providers generally turn a blind eye to sharing for your family use, but they are unlikely to do so if you start turning it into a business.