How to: Set Up a Wi-Fi Hotzone Using Meraki (Part II)

In Part I of this tutorial, we learned how to effectively plan for the deployment of a hotzone for neighborhoods and main city streets using low-cost Meraki equipment. Now, we’ll turn our attention to implementing the network.


Defining configuration settings


The Meraki system is easy to configure for either free or fee-based access. All configuration and management of the network is done through the Meraki Dashboard. To access the Dashboard, you need to setup a user account on the Meraki Web site. You’ll then be able to login to your account and configure the settings for the network.


The following are settings that you should consider before getting too far with the installation:


  • Public vs. private network: Meraki lets you create two separate Wi-Fi networks over the same physical hardware, with each network having a unique service set identifier (SSID). One network is the public Wi-Fi network that you can configure for free access or establish up to two billing plans with selections for the amount you want to charge per hour, day, week, or month. You can enable free trial access over a period of time (e.g., 20 minutes) along with the fee-based services. The other network is a private Wi-Fi network that provides WPA-based encryption. Thus, a municipality can have city employees connecting to the private SSID, while public users connect via the public SSID. If deploying a neighborhood Wi-Fi network, then you may want to consider having everyone connect to the private network for added security (assuming you have a trusty group, since you have to give everyone the WPA password). 


  • Billing and throughput. If you’re charging for access, you’ll need to enter the billing plans that you’re planning to use. In addition to the costs, you must specify the throughput provided for users. Meraki lets you identify a different performance for each billing plan. As a result, consider offering a higher throughput for users who pay more.    


  • Branding: You can enable a splash screen that appears when a user brings up their browser for the first time after connecting to one of the mesh nodes on your network. The Meraki system provides pre-programmed templates and a method for entering a text message and image, which results in a splash screen similar to what you’ve probably seen when logging into a Wi-Fi hotspot. This is a good place to welcome users to the network and tell them a little about what to expect (e.g., free or fee-based service), but it’s fairly limited for promoting advertisers who may be financing the network. Under the advanced menu tab in the Meraki Dashboard, however, you can configure the system to automatically re-direct users from the splash screen (after subscribing) to a secondary Web page (that you create). For example, a hotel might want to re-direct users to the home page of the hotel’s Web site, or a municipality might re-direct users to a city Web site that identifies all businesses along the main street of the town. This secondary splash screen is good advertising real estate for those of you funding the site through sponsors and paid advertisers.  


  • Messaging: An interesting feature with the Meraki system is that you can enable the displaying of messages in the users’ browser tool bars. You simply enter one or more text messages, with hyperlinks to something if you want, and all users on the public network will see the message appear. If you enter more than one message, the messages rotate periodically. This can be a means of advertising. For example, you could display the message “10% off today at Jan’s Dry Cleaners,” for one of your advertisers (or sponsors) with a link to the business’s Web site. Or, a neighborhood can use it to make everyone aware of community meeting dates, soccer scores, etc.


  • Channel settings: You can configure the Meraki system to operate on any one of the 2.4 GHz RF channels. Based on testing that my consulting company Wireless-Nets has completed in major cities throughout the U.S., the most common RF channel in use is channel 6. As a result, set your Meraki system to either channel 1 or channel 11. It’s worthwhile, though, to run some tests first to see if existing RF interference may impact your channel selection.


  • Alert settings: If you want the system to notify you in case of a downed node or other performance issue, then enter and activate an alert e-mail address. If something goes wrong, you’ll receive a message explaining the issue. This is a good proactive approach that will hopefully lead you to solving issues before they become problems for users.


  • Adding nodes: After you order and receive the mesh nodes, you must identify them in the system by indicating their serial number and MAC address (for each mesh node). This can get tedious. Luckily, Meraki has established an optional function that prompts you to enter only the order number corresponding to the purchase of the equipment, and all of the applicable nodes automatically populate into the system. In addition, you can specify a name and street address for each node. Be sure to use actual addresses where they’ll be installed because the Meraki management system will then position them correctly in an integrated Google map, which you can easily switch to satellite view. Also, think of a naming convention that allows recognition of the node by name since a lot of the Meraki reports refer to the nodes in this manner.  


Testing signal coverage


After installing the network, be certain that it’s possible to access the Internet from all user locations (where practical) and have good performance using typical client devices, such as laptops and PCs equipped with Wi-Fi radios. If low performance is found in particular locations, then consider installing additional mesh nodes to cover the holes.


As part of the testing, create test criteria that indicate minimum levels of performance. The ability to support 1 Mbps uplink and downlink is a fairly common requirement, but you might need to throttle back performance a bit to accommodate larger groups of simultaneous users, depending on your backhaul situation.


Concluding thoughts


Before jumping in too deep with a Meraki deployment, take some time to understand what you’re getting in to. It helps tremendously to ease into the deployment through small steps prior to plopping down large amounts of money. For example, create a user account on the Meraki site even before ordering the equipment, and see what the configuration dashboard is like. This gives you a much better understanding of what the system can and can’t do. In addition, start the installation with only a few nodes. Get that working well, and then move on to installing a larger network.  


With a little time and some trials and tribulations, you’ll have a working system up and running for very little money.


Author Biography: Jim Geier provides independent consulting services and training to companies developing and deploying wireless networks for enterprises and municipalities. He is the author of a dozen books on wireless topics, with recent releases including Deploying Voice over Wireless LANs (Cisco Press) and Implementing 802.1x Security Solutions (Wiley).  


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