Pronto Networks Pronto Hotspot Controller

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.

Pros

  • Good remote monitoring and updating

  • Good support

Cons

  • Poor documentation

  • 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.

Testing

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.

Summary

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.

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