Pros: Anyone can set up a hotspot using almost any wireless hardware
Cons: It may conflict with other network software; requires a dedicated PC running Windows Internet Connection Sharing
Setting up a hotspot usually requires the purchase of specially-designed and often expensive access points and/or software. 2hotspot from Alepo offers a different approach with its software/service combo (which is currently in beta) that lets you set up your own free or for-profit hotspot using just about any wireless hardware you happen to be using.
(DISCLAIMER: It’s important to note that publicly sharing a residential broadband connection– especially for profit– may violate your ISP’s terms of service, so you should probably check them before using 2hotspot.)
If you’ve already got a WLAN in place that you want to use with 2hotspot, it’s not quite as simple as just installing the software. You’ll first need to make some adjustments to your network, because 2hotspot uses the Windows Internet Connection Sharing feature (ICS) in order to run. In a typical WLAN scenario, your wireless router controls access to the network and has a direct connection to the broadband equipment (like a cable modem or DSL adapter). With 2hotspot, the network gateway is a Windows 2000/XP PC with ICS enabled and running the 2hotspot software, which grants or denies user access.
For those unfamiliar with ICS, it requires a system with two network connections– one linked to the Internet and one to the local network. Most systems don’t have two Ethernet ports, and if you can’t or don’t want to add another Ethernet adapter, there are other options. Perhaps the best one is to make use of the USB port found on most DSL or cable modems as your controller PC’s Internet link, then connect your system’s Ethernet port to a LAN port (not the WAN port) on your wireless router or AP, so hotspot users can access the Internet connection. (You also need to disable your router/AP’s DHCP server, since this function is taken over by ICS.)
Since the 2hotspot software doesn’t need to interact directly with your wireless hardware, almost any router or AP should work with 2hotspot; wireless hardware that’s integrated with cable or DSL equipment may not. (2hotspot could theoretically run on any Windows system, including a notebook with only a wireless client adapter.) We used the connection method described above with a fairly typical wireless router– a Netgear WPN824– to set up 2hotspot on a desktop system.
The 2hotspot software doesn’t do anything to set up or configure ICS– you have to handle that yourself and make sure that it’s working before you install 2hotspot. (There is online help available at www.2hotspot.com to show you how, or check the detailed tutorials at PracticallyNetworked.)
Once you’ve got ICS configured properly, the next step is to install the 2hotspot controller application, which redirects users to your 2hotspot portal page to be authenticated. Although the controller software seemed to install without incident, it initially failed to work– a problem we eventually traced with the help of 2hotspot technical support to a conflict between the controller and the network driver for Microsoft’s VirtualPC emulation software, also installed on the test system. Upon disabling the VirtualPC network driver, the 2hotspot controller ran without incident, but it raises the possibility of 2hotspot conflicting with other programs that have their own network components.
Setting Up and Managing Networks
With the controller up and running, you can go to 2hotspot’s Location Management Portal (LMP) to register for the service and set up and administer your hotspot. You can reach the LMP through the controller software, but since it’s hosted by 2hotspot (as opposed to running on your own system), it’s reachable from any browser. Most of the LMP’s configuration options are relatively straightforward, but at the moment, there isn’t any documentation or even online help to rely on if an option’s purpose isn’t clear. We encountered a few minor bugs while using the LMP, which isn’t necessarily surprising considering that 2hotspot is still a beta product.
After you decide what type of hotspot you want (free or for-profit), you can customize certain aspects of the portal page your users will see. For example, you can specify a welcome message, outline your usage terms and conditions, and specify unrestricted sites for a walled garden. You can also input MAC addresses for trusted devices (like a VoIP adapter, DVR or game console) that you want to have unchallenged access, or for devices you want to be blocked from the network. The rest of the configurable options depend on the type of hotspot you’re setting up. If you’re setting up a free hotspot, you can create user accounts; and for a for-profit hotspot, you can specify your own pricing for hourly, daily, weekly or monthly plans. In either case, you can customize some other parameters, like the maximum number of concurrent users, and you can limit the amount of upstream and downstream bandwidth that can be consumed by each user.
When it comes to collecting money, you can have 2hotspot process your payments and send you checks (one of the ways the free software gets subsidized)– 2hotspot’s cut is 10 cents per transaction, plus 15 percent of the transaction amount. You also have the option of using your own merchant account, but then you’ll have to pay 2hotspot a $49 startup fee and sign an annual contract. You’ll also be charged 20 cents per transaction or $50 per month, whichever is greater.
Whether you’re just feeling generous or are looking to make a few extra bucks, it’s appealing to be able to set up your own hotspot without having to shell out cash for special hardware or software. 2hotspot says it’s working on additional features like chats, forums and blogs, and envisions its software being used to create free community hotspots with local-interest content, subsidized by ads.
2hotspot’s downside is its reliance on ICS. The feature can often be temperamental, and without a doubt will be more prone to problems than just about any hardware router (indeed, our ICS setup intermittently refused to issue client IP addresses). For 24-hour access, it would require a Windows PC to be always on and working properly, and while that sounds simple enough, anyone familiar with Windows knows that it can’t always be taken for granted — particularly if the system is also being used for other tasks. Installing and running other software on the controller system may make for a somewhat less than reliable hotspot.