It’s no surprise that we love internet access, especially when we’re on the go – just look at the growth of mobile apps, the increase in screen time… need I say more? There are 5.11 billion unique mobile users in the world today, up 100 million (2 percent) in the past year. Building a hotspot network is a great way for service providers, telcos, and operators alike to capture these subscribers and expand their customer footprint.
First things first – a Wi-Fi hotspot is an area with an accessible wireless network, say in an airport, at a park, in a hotel, or in a public area. Consumers can use these to easily get connected to the internet, and typically rely on wifi hotspots while they’re on the go, as they’re exceptionally convenient. These networks can be public, where anyone with a proper device can join the network, or private, requiring authentication before gaining access to the internet.
A WiFi hotspot network, simply means an assemblage of wifi hotspots, usually built from existing access points in a telecommunications vendor’s network. Typically, wireless access points are configured to segment traffic, such that the access point can service the hotspot network and another use – whether that’s a home network, a business network, or another public network.
What Makes a Good Wi-Fi Hotspot Network?
Building and maintaining a hotspot network can be tough. There are a few factors that really impact the network’s ability to sustain traffic and continue to perform at a rate that users can appreciate. Some of the top things to think about before deploying a hotspot network include:
Coverage – ensuring that your network has a sufficient amount of APs to manage the number of visitors the network would have is key. Additionally, ensuring that you can cover enough ground from a geographic perspective to build out a network that will be valuable to on-the-go visitors is important. One of the top reasons people join hotspot networks is because they’re travelling – so building your network to support mobility is key in user adoption and retention.
Performance – no one likes underperforming networks – this goes for WiFi hotspot networks as well. Verifying that you have optimal radio coverage and high bandwidth connectivity helps ensure you can deliver high-speed internet at all times.
Flexible Deployment & Scalability – whenever you’re looking to roll-out a new offering, it’s important to plan for expansion and make sure that you have the capacity to scale. Mapping out a strategy that makes it easy to deploy (and manage) new hotspots can save you time and effort later on. Some things to keep in mind are the APs you choose, the software you choose to help augment the hardware you use, and how each of these are able to integrate with other tools. For hotspot networks, manual configuration and management is virtually impossible. Ensuring that you can deploy relatively easily and maintain these APs is key. Ideally, you’ll want to automate part of the process to simplify IT teams’ tasks and reduce human errors.
Easy Management – since the network is made up of multiple APs (sometimes from different vendors!) it’s essential that these are able to be controlled and supervised from a single interface. Additionally, having granular visibility into the network makes managing and remediating issues exponentially easier. Distributed intelligence across the network is ideal, so that as the network continues to grow, your visibility does as well.
Security – one of the top reasons why a visitor would choose not to use your public hotspot network is because of security risks. Quell these concerns be making sure you have appropriate measures in place to protect visitors’ devices and data that they pass through the network.
Affordability – of course, as for any offering, ensuring that you can build and maintain a network that works in your favor from a margin perspective (over time too!) is vital. Total cost of ownership has to allow for updates, upgrades, and subscriber sustainability. TCO can be highly influenced by deployment and management complexity, hardware costs and lack of evolution capabilities – so keep these factors in mind when deciding which products to rely on, and what vendors to work with in building and expanding your network.
What Types of WiFi Hotspot Networks Exist Today?
While most hotspots are relatively similar, there are some key differences that are important to define –
Mobile Hotspots & Offload
Public WiFi Hotspots are the most common, providing the general public an easy way to access the internet. These can be provided by coffee shops, libraries, retail stores, and even municipal governments or ISPs. Typically, these are free, however, in high traffic areas, such as an airport or a hotel, a charge can be required in order to join the network and have internet access. A few of the key factors that make a public WiFi a game changer for users and telcos alike include:
Of course, user experience is key in rolling out any offering, so designing the Public WiFi experience to be as seamless as possible has the potential to transform user adoption and retention for the hosting Telco. For Public WiFi, users should be able to easily access the login screen (or authentication portal) and be able to automatically connect to the WiFi APs in the portal network (as they roam throughout the coverage area), rather than having to re-connect / log in again at each AP.
A pivotal part of managing a public wifi network is the ability to apply policies to network traffic. Service providers should be able to institute policies, such as time duration for access (from minutes to months) or total data consumption (from 1MB to unlimited).
As with any internet connection, users want to know they can rely on a consistent, strong connection. Since public Wi-Fi networks often span different types of WiFi access points (APs), the user experience can potentially be spotty and inconsistent. To avoid delivering a subpar experience and avoid negative brand impressions, use a virtual wifi access gateway that is vendor agnostic, so that policies, features, and security can transcend the limitations of each individual AP.
Mobile Hotspots & Mobile Offload
Mobile hotspots can refer to a few different things – one refers to using LTE, 4G, or 5G and converting this to a Wi-Fi signal, where as the other refers to mobile offload, where LTE, 4G, and 5G traffic is offloaded to local WiFi networks.
For operators, this can work to benefit both parties – offloading cellular traffic makes it easier to free up bandwidth for other users while leasing WiFi bandwidth to other operators can offer a solid stream of income to compliment other WiFi offerings. Plus, WiFi Offload helps address network gaps in areas where cellular reception may be spotty.
Benu Networks supports Mobile Network Offload, in which WiFi connections interwork with 4G/5G mobile core networks. Offload traffic is provided over a separate SSID on the WiFi AP and tunneled back to the Benu SD-Edge platform, much like is done in public WiFi deployments. In these deployments, the Benu platform is referred to as a Trusted Wireless Access Gateway (TWAG). Authentication procedures are based on an EAP (EAP-AKA or EAP-SIM) and 3GPP AAA server or the AAA proxy STa reference interface, enabling the 4G/5G mobile core to authenticate the user via their subscriber identity module (SIM). The TWAG application provides data interworking with mobile packet core using a 4G based S2a interface to the PDN-GW.
Service providers offering Public WiFi or Mobile Network Offload are legally required to support “Lawful Intercept”, which is the ability to provide law enforcement organizations access to subscriber’s online activity and even tap connections for voice, video, and data content. WiFi APs do not have this capability. Benu’s WAG supports Lawful Intercept and its associated interfaces.
Why Should You Build a Wi-Fi Hotspot Network?
Hotspots offer service providers or operators who own the network a plethora of benefits, including:
Increasing customer retention – offering customers the ability to connect on-the-go virtually anywhere is huge plus. For operators, this can increase stickiness by amplifying the convenience factor you’re able to offer- making it easier for customers to return to you for their connectivity needs.
Building brand awareness – With your SSID popping up in everyone’s available networks list, you’re sure to enhance your brand recognition and awareness simply by being available. Plus, if users connect to your network and find the experience to be easy and reliable, this just may convert a user to a customer!
Adding pay-as-you-go transactions – augment your revenue by generating new product income with pay-as-you-go connectivity.
Creating partnerships with mobile operators for offload – this helps mobile operators fill in coverage gaps, offload traffic in congested or high-density areas, and reduce roaming costs when subscribers are out of footprint.
Starting can seem a bit daunting, especially if you’re not able to find the right partner to support the initiatives you’d like to drive.
What Should You Look For in a Vendor?
We’ve mapped out a few things to check-off to help you get started in looking for products and vendors to work with in building out your network.
Scalability – make sure their solutions can scale elastically – so as your business changes, your network infrastructure can evolve with it.
Interoperability – the best networks are not built from a single vendor. It’s imperative to make sure that you can select best of breed tools that fit your business need & integrate those with products you already use.
Partnership not just a purchase – find a vendor that will go the extra mile, respond to your support tickets, and follow up to check in on progress.
If you’re looking to build out a network of hotspots, we’re happy to help. Our products are designed to be hyper-scalable and extensible, so you can build and expand your network as you see fit.