We would like to provide wireless access to the internet for customers in our regional chain of coffee bars. Will this be a costly and complicated business and how easily could we integrate it with our own business network?
Consider outsourcing for simplicity and support
Installing Wi-Fi hotspots will not be complicated or costly. But before you get started, it is important to address a few questions:
- What is needed to install a hotspot?
- How do you go about it?
- How much money can be made from it?
A typical hotspot is made up of hardware, an access point and a router as well as an ADSL circuit for connecting to the internet.
There are a number of ways to get this set up. You can buy the kit and rent the broadband circuit yourself, although this will not provide any service support for the site or your customers.
Or you can outsource the whole installation and maintenance of the hotspot to a wireless internet service provider (WISP). This takes away the burden of hosting and maintaining the service and gives round-the-clock care to both site owner and end-user.
The WISP will also provide staff training and branding support - essential if you are going to encourage customers to use the service and ultimately drive additional revenue.
What is the revenue opportunity? The financial return obviously relies somewhat on the location of your site, the footfall and having areas to sit down and use the service. When examining the numbers, look at the commercial offer your WISP will provide. For example, check out the discount for you off vouchers sold to your customers, the percentage of revenue share you will receive from the number of minutes used at your site and the up-selling of your core service - coffees.
Marjorie Leonidas, sales manager, BT Openzone
Make sure you install a good quality firewall
If you want to charge customers for a wireless service, providers offer relatively hassle-free packages, such as BT Openzone in a Box. There are set-up costs, but you make a small profit on usage.
If you want to provide access for staff use, customer use or both, there are other considerations. Internal access needs to be delivered securely. Besides passwords and firewalls, you should add precautions such as encryption technology. Local IT resellers will be able to help with this.
If you want to offer customers free use, the service can be easy to implement. However, there are still decisions to be made:how will it connect to the internet, and will it provide a level of firewall protection? Many firewalls offer these facilities out of the box and will plug straight into an existing network or an ADSL connection.
If you want both, you can have two internet connections or, through a firewall, connect the public wireless service so it goes via your own network.
Whatever you choose, you need to put a quality firewall in place to protect both you and your customers and ensure you know how to use it effectively.
John Coulthard, director of small business, Microsoft UK
Keep your business network separate
Are you sure you want to integrate this into your business network? Unless your customers are going to access services that are not available to the general public, I would advocate keeping the two areas separate. That does not mean a physical separation, although you may choose to have this, but a logical separation of the networks.
Next, consider whether this is something you set up and maintain yourself or you take a product that is already on the market and implement that. For example, BTOpenzone or the T-Mobile service.
I suspect that you have a connection to the internet already from the coffee bar and you want to make this available to your customers. You can set up bandwidth restrictions on the two sets of traffic so hotspot activity does not disrupt your normal traffic.
Remember, wireless signals go in all directions, so people other than customers sitting in your premises will probably be able to access the hotspot you set up.
Hopefully, the system will not need much support, but make sure that staff in the coffee shop know where to get help should the hotspot or the connection to the internet fail.
And finally, make sure you are not legally liable for anything that people do via your access point.
Trevor Lucas, managing director, TAL Computer Services
Forming a partnership could beat going it alone
Are you interested in providing a service or in making money? The best approach may well be a partnership/franchise with an existing service provider that can provide a complete service for you. One key advantage of a partner is that they operate a nationwide branded service which is recognisable to the customer and billed centrally. It also ensures a single log-in for your customer, greatly simplifying the connection process as the customer will not need help from your staff.
If you decide to go it alone, the viability of the operation may depend on your existing infrastructure or business network requirements. Do your branches already have internet access or could you make a business case for it (the benefits of inter-branch communications, for example)? If so, it would be possible to piggyback wireless access for your customers.
The cost drivers are probably not hardware and infrastructure so much as skills investment and ongoing administration. Do you have the necessary IT expertise in-house? If not, you need to outsource. Do your staff have sufficient time and expertise to show your customers how to configure their mobile devices? How will you bill customers?
You need to determine your business case for this service and then obtain a quote from a recognised service provider on a partner/franchise basis and compare this with fully costed in-house and outsourced proposals.
Mike Hudd, technical director, Netcel
Ensure latte surfers can't clobber your apps
Providing wireless internet services for coffee shop customers can be easily achieved by partnering with one of the telecoms providers that have coverage and standard offerings in your area. The challenge will be ensuring that your "surfing" coffee customers do not affect your business applications.
If you have applications running across your internal business network, you will need to assess the quality of service they demand. You may be able to route applications tolerant of internet network quality across the broadband network the provider puts in place. To achieve this securely, a virtual private network should be implemented at the router, channelling all business data securely across the internet.
Multi-protocol label switching can improve quality of service across "internet" networks for those applications which require it, such as IP telephony, and could be an answer if your internal applications are intolerant of the quality of generic broadband. However, this is still evolving, so you would need a full cost/benefit analysis.
The key to success will be to partner with a company that wants your business, is flexible, and provides a transparent charging model.
Mike Lucas, regional technology manager, Compuware
Are you an SME with an IT challenge? E-mail your question to [email protected]