ZyXEL ZyAIR B-4000 Wireless Hotspot Gateway

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.

When it comes to subscriber accounts, the B-4000 lets you provide customers with a fair amount of flexibility. Both pre-paid and post-paid accounts are supported, and you can give subscribers accumulation accounts, so three hours of time purchased need not be used all in one session. (After a user logs in, a small window monitors the amount of time purchased and remaining.)

If you’re trying to make a profit (or even just break even) on hotspot access, then advertising is something that may be necessary. To that end, the B-4000 can be configured to display up to ten sponsored links either when the user first logs in or periodically while they’re online. The former is probably the preferred approach, since the programmed links are somewhat obtrusively popped up in an active browser window.

As you might imagine, if you’re operating a for-profit hotspot, then being able to keep tabs on it is fairly important. Fortunately, the B-4000 supports output to a syslog server–either within the LAN or beyond the reaches of the WAN (or both). About a dozen system events can be logged ranging from account creation and activation to when users or account managers and supervisors log in.

E-mail alerts (at customized intervals) are also available, but I found them somewhat less than useful mainly due to the crude comma-delimited formatting of the messages which made it tough to comprehend the data. Also, the B-4000 doesn’t aggregate logs into a single e-mail but rather sends multiple e-mails for each monitored category, which adds to the confusion.

A single 802.11 AP doesn’t offer too much in the way of wireless capacity, and a potentially useful feature that the B-4000 lacks is the ability to limit bandwidth on a per user basis. ZyXEL says this ability is planned for the future.

If you want to increase the capacity of the B-4000, you can add access points via the unit’s LAN ports. ZyXEL says any AP will work with the system, but only ZyXEL models will support the Layer 2 isolation that prevents clients from accessing each other.

Just as I was completing the review, ZyXEL provided beta code of new firmware that will be available in February. In addition to a more aesthetically pleasing interface, it integrates support for credit card payments via a merchant account at authorize.net.

All things considered, the B-4000 does a good job at tying together all the facets of a functional WLAN hotspot and its soup-to-nuts approach removes a lot of the complexity of setting up and maintaining one. Better yet, the $649 price tag puts it within reach of all but the most budget conscious mom-and-pop shops.

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