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Easy 802.11b Wireless for Small Businesses

by James Duncan Davidson

Lots of small businesses across the nation are providing wireless access for their customers. Coffee shops and neighborhood cafes come to mind quickly because they are places where people gather for a little while and might want to replace reading the paper with reading their email. But any business that is providing a place for their customers to gather, even a doctor’s waiting room, can benefit from putting wireless technology into place. Imagine being able to get a bit of work done, or surf and find a second opinion, while you wait to see the doctor.

Let’s use the easy coffee shop example. If I have my choice between two shops across from each other on a street, and I know one of them has wireless access that enables me to make sure that the meeting I’m about to catch a cab for is still on, you can easily guess which one I am going to for my mocha. It’s not even a question. And if I go there that one time a week when I need Internet access, it’s likely that I’ll go there the other days of the week when I don’t. People get into habits that way.

Now think about how this can level, or even tilt, the playing field to the advantage of a small business owner. If your coffee is just as good, or even better than, Starbucks, and your café is as comfortable, but you are offering wireless access, then you have created an edge for yourself.

The usefulness of wireless networks is not limited to people that happen to be toting their laptops. Wireless networking is finding its way into all sorts of devices. Some of my O’Reilly Network comrades have been running around the last few conferences with Handspring Visors that have 802.11b cards stuck into them. As wireless becomes even more pervasive in the home with devices such as the Moxi, you can bet that people will carry more devices that seek out and use wireless networks.

What You’ll Need and How Much It Will Cost

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For a small business with a limited area to cover (a few thousand square feet), a wireless network can be set up for a few thousand dollars—-and much less if you already have a laptop to configure the network with. Even if you have to buy a laptop, the startup cost is probably less than giving your walls a new coat of paint. Let’s assume that you don’t have anything and want to set up a system yourself. You’ll need the following items (we’re going to use Apple equipment as an example because it’s easy to use and obtain):

For less than $1,600 you have all the equipment you need. Next up, you’ll need to get some kind of connectivity so that your wireless customers will be able to reach the Internet. This is relatively easy to do. In California, where I live, you can get a business DSL line for $50 per month and no setup fee, if you agree to set up the equipment on the line yourself. It’s easy enough to do, so unless you are really phobic about setting things up, you probably don’t have any startup cost for turning on the line. And, back to our coffee shop example, the monthly cost is less than what you'd pay to have the dishes washed each day. (Plus you have lots of bandwidth for personal use!)

To Charge or Not to Charge

One of the first questions a business owner needs to answer is “Why am I providing wireless access for my customers?” If the answer is to find a way to make a bit of money, then obviously, a charge is in order. However, given that it costs so little to provide wireless access, most businesses should probably look at providing this as an amenity for the customers, just as the furniture and the pictures on the wall are meant to be. It should be a perk that encourages customers to come back. Often these are referred to as "value-added" services.

As an example of how charging is probably not a good idea, let me use the Denver International Airport. The last time I flew United through DIA, I noticed that my laptop saw a wireless network in the terminal, but that I wasn’t getting an IP address. I found out that if I wanted to pay for it, I could have access. And when I found out how much it cost, I didn’t even want to hook up. It was very pricey. I’m sure that most of the cost of the network isn’t in the access or the hardware–-it’s in the cost of having people there and trained to collect money and assign IP addresses.

If, however, DIA just put up the base stations (it’d need quite a few as it is a big place) and let people use it for free, it would incur a one-time cost for setting up the network and a monthly cost for the bandwidth, but it wouldn’t have to pay anybody to collect money. In addition, DIA would have many business travelers who have a wireless-enabled laptop choosing Denver as their layover because they know they can check email there. Traffic through DIA might just increase, giving the airport more revenue and easily paying for the cost of the network.

How To Set Things Up

Comment on this articleDuncan has outlined one way to use 802.11b in the business space to provide additional value to customers. What are other business uses for this technology?
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Now that I have convinced you to set up a wireless network, here’s the ten-step process to set one up for your business:

1: Order the equipment.

Buying the equipment online from the Apple Store is a good idea. It’s quick and easy. Otherwise, your local computer store should have everything you need.

2: Order the DSL line.

To do this, go to your phone company’s Web site and click on the prominent “Order DSL Now” button. Every phone company now offers DSL for a percentage of its region. Most DSL providers offer significant discounts for doing a self-installation. It’s easy enough that you really should take them up on the offer.

3: Be patient.

It takes time for most phone companies to mobilize itself to get a DSL line put in. Nobody really knows why and maybe they’ll get better someday, but for the time being, expect to wait a few weeks.

4: Receive the self-install kit.

You’ll need to follow the instructions provided, but typically this means putting DSL blockers (devices that keep normal phones from interfering with your Internet connection) on your telephone, hooking up a box, known as a DSL modem, to your telephone line (without a blocker), and turning on the equipment.

5: Connect the AirPort base station.

Connect the AirPort base station to the DSL modem using an Ethernet cable and turn it on. The white lights on the base station should blink for a while, and then settle down.

6: Ready your iBook.

Open up your iBook (you’ve probably had weeks to play with it while you’ve waited for the DSL hookup), make sure that it is configured to connect to the Internet via the wireless card, and select the wireless base station that will appear, as shown in Figure 1.

Airport Admin Utility
Figure 1. Launch the AirPort Admin Utility found in the /Applications/Utilities folder of your hard drive.

7: Launch the AirPort Admin Utility.:

When the utility launches, double-click on the base station that displays. See Figure 2.

Accessing the Base Station
Figure 2. The Select Base Station window.

8: Name your base station.

Fill out the first screen of information that pops up with the name that you want the base station to have, as well as the name that you want the network to have. Be sure to also change the default password of the base station at this juncture to something that only you know. See Figure 3.

Name the Base Station
Figure 3. The Airport tab of the Base Station utility.

9: Configure Internet connectivity.

Click on the Internet tab and configure Internet connectivity based on the instructions given to you by your DSL provider. If your provider gave you a static IP address, then you should set the base station to configure itself “Manually” and put the information given to you into the fields, as shown in Figure 4.

Entering Info for your Base Station
Figure 4. If your Internet service provider gives you a static IP, then configure "Manually" as shown above. For dynamic addresses use the DHCP selection, as shown in Figure 5.

Configuring for DHCP
Figure 5.

Configuring for PPPoE Figure 6. If your provider uses PPPoE, tell the base station to connect via “PPP over Ethernet (PPPoE)” and fill out the username and password given to you by your provider.

10: Configure the base station to distribute IP address.

This step ensures that anybody who wants an address using your base station will be able to get one. You will also want to adjust the DHCP lease time to a figure that makes sense for the type of customers that you have. If you are running a coffee shop, then a 30-minute DHCP lease should be sufficient. See Figure 7.

Distributing IP addresses
Figure 7. Make sure the "Distribute IP addresses" box is checked.

Now, hit the “Update” button and save the configuration. Next, test out your connection. Assuming your connection tests out all right, you’re hooked up to the network. In fact, about all that remains is to tell your customers that you have wireless Internet access and enjoy the benefits.

Acceptable Use Policies

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Once you have set up a wireless network in a small business, you should have a set of "acceptable use" policies for your customers. You don’t have to create lengthy legal forms for this, but you should have a sign somewhere in your business that indicates what you expect your customers to use the access for, and what you find unacceptable. You can probably just use common courtesy as a basis for forming a sign that might look something like this:

We have provided wireless Internet access to you, our customers, for your use and enjoyment. We ask that you follow a few guidelines in this shared environment.
Please avoid large downloads and video streams as they will limit the bandwidth available to others. Do not access content that other customers might find offensive. The best rule of thumb for this is: don't look at anything that would embarrass you if your mom were looking over your shoulder. And above all, we require that you follow all local, state, and federal laws for Internet activity while online at this establishment.

Protecting Yourself from Hackers

If you want to connect your personal machines up to the same connection as the one that you use for the publicly accessible wireless network, you’ll need to think about protecting your machines from potential hackers. To do this, you’ll want to make sure that there is no direct way for anybody that is using the public wireless network to reach any of your computers.

The best way to protect your machines is to get two separate DSL connections from your broadband provider. The next best way is to get two public IP addresses on your broadband connection, use one for the public wireless base station, and use a gateway router that performs NAT for the other IP address. There are many such boxes on the market that are aimed at the residential market, such as SMC’s Barricade Broadband Router and NetGear’s RT311 Gateway Router.


If you want to connect your personal machines wirelessly, do not use your public base station to do so. You will not be secure doing so. Instead connect them using a second Apple base station (which serves as a gateway router itself) and make sure to use 128-bit encryption and other access controls such as a network password for your private wireless network.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, setting up a wireless network for your business is a fairly inexpensive and painless process. The only thing missing is a little "AirPort-Enabled" sticker on your door next to the VISA and MasterCard icons.

Oh, and be sure to let me know that you’ve enabled wireless access for your business. I’m always looking for new places to go, and if I can check my email from there, so much the better.

James Duncan Davidson is a freelance author, software developer, and consultant focusing on Mac OS X, Java, XML, and open source technologies. He currently resides in San Francisco, California.

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