Hot hotspot gateways

Four products that deliver Wi-Fi guest access

Offering Wi-Fi can be a good way to increase return customers and boost revenue in retail stores, hotels, cafes, etc. And it provides convenience for contractors and associates working in corporate offices and conference rooms. Though visitors might have 4G mobile devices or laptops, Wi-Fi can provide a faster, higher quality connection.

[SLIDESHOW: Hottest hot spot gateways]

We looked at four Wi-Fi hotspot solutions that can be used to offer guests and visitors wireless and wired access. Some offer free access, with the ability to make customers agree to your terms of service before Internet access is given by what it called a captive portal. Others support fee-based access where guests/visitors can purchase access time via their device or from a cashier using a ticket printer.

Here are the individual reviews:

Intellinet GuestGate MK II: Best for small deployments

The GuestGate MK II from Intellinet is an 802.11n hotspot gateway targeted towards smaller deployments, and available for as low as $140 from online retailers with a three-year manufacturer warranty. It features automatic segregation from the host or private network that it plugs into.

GuestGate provides a fully customizable captive portal, password-protected Internet access using global or up to 50 individual passwords or RADIUS authentication, and offers bandwidth controls.

We found the initial installation of the hotspot to be easy. Simply plug it anywhere on the host network and it starts offering segregated guest access. And for wired computers or additional access points, it offers four 10/100Mbps ports for guest access.

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For increased security, you must access the web-based admin interface from the host network, which you access via the IP address it's been assigned. After accessing it, you'll see the Status tab, which shows the typical network and device details and statuses. It includes a list of guest clients, including their connection details and the ability to disconnect them.

On the Guest tab you'll find the guest network settings, where by default each guest is assigned to their own network/subnet so they can't connect to each other. Or optionally you can choose to have all guests on the same network.

You'll also find the wireless settings, which, unlike other routers or hotspot gateways, lacks auto channel selection and the ability to enable encryption. On this tab, you can also select the download and upload bandwidth limits and add trusted media access control addresses for devices you don't want to require authentication or acceptance when using the guest network. Plus here you can enable/disable the welcome captive portal, configure RADIUS authentication, or create global or individual access passwords.

On the Host tab you can configure the network settings for the host/private network connection, including OpenDNS support for content filtering on the guest network and Dynamic DNS using the DynDNS or DNS-O-Matic services.

Additionally, the packet filtering allows you to block guests from accessing specific addresses or ports, allow access to specific addresses on the host network, or allow access to specific addressees before authentication or acceptance of terms (typically called walled garden functionality).

On the Schedule tab you can set the time settings, specify exactly when you want to offer the guest access, and schedule daily reboots of the hotspot gateway.

On the Welcome Screen tab you can customize the captive portal via simple text input or advanced input by editing the HTML, both with the ability to upload a banner image and to optionally choose a redirect URL guests are sent to after authentication or acceptance of terms.

On the last tab, Device Settings, you'll find the general gateway settings, and the guest session and traffic logs.

Overall, the Intellinet GuestGate MK II is a great option for those wanting to offer simple free Wi-Fi hotspot service. Since it lacks built-in billing, ticket printer support, and some advanced features, it's not well designed for fee-based or advanced hotspot deployments. But its automatic host/private network segregation makes it easy for anyone to install, and configuration is straightforward too. And with pricing starting at $140, it's an economical solution for small businesses.

Guest Internet Hotspot Gateway and Printer: Billing, but no AP

We tested the GIS-R4 Hotspot Gateway from Guest Internet Solutions, which supports up to 100 users, and we also tested its compatible Ticket Printer (GIS-TP1). Although the gateway doesn't include a Wi-Fi access point, the four Ethernet ports offer wired access and wireless access by connecting access points. The gateway is available for as low as $210 from online retailers with a three-year manufacturer warranty and the ticket printer for as low as $150 with a one-year manufacturer warranty.

The gateway provides a fully customizable captive portal with the ability to require acceptance of usage terms, email registration, or an access code via self-service or the ticket printer before guest access is granted. To sell the access codes you can configure a PayPal Business account to accept credit cards and PayPal payments for self-service users.

The installation of the gateway was easy; simply plug it into the Internet connection or private network, connect a PC, and the first time you access the Internet a wizard appears. It helps you test/configure the Internet connection, set an admin password, customize the login page, and select the authentication method.

After completing the wizard, you'll find the other settings categorized by three main sections. In the Management section, the Manage Codes page allows you to create random or custom access codes in batches or one at a time. For each access code you can specify an expiration time, download and upload limit, and if it can be used by multiple users. And if you have the ticket printer, you can print the access codes when you create them or later by viewing the list.

The remaining pages in the Management section allow you to schedule hotspot availability, change the system password, and reboot the system.

Under the Advanced section you'll find numerous pages for the rest of the hotspot and customization settings. On the Login Settings page you can configure the login or authentication settings, including choosing to use their wizard and template or upload your own HTML pages and images.

On the Disclaimer Text page you'll find the lengthy legal terms and conditions that are displayed to users, which you can customize to your liking. The Content Filter page lets you easily enable the third-party OpenDNS service on your network. On the Firewall page you'll find that the gateway by default blocks guests from accessing local IP ranges, preventing them from accessing any private network it's plugged into.

[ALSO: Best tools to set up secure Wi-Fi for BYOD]

On the Hostname page you can change the hostname ( by default) used for the login and admin pages. However, as explained, they provide an SSL certificate with the default hostname. Unlike the other gateways, using the certificate they supply means users won't see warnings when securely accessing the login pages.

On the Allowed IP List page you can enter addresses that guests can access without logging on or accepting the terms of usage. And on the Allowed MAC list you can list the MAC addresses of devices you'd like to give unrestricted Internet access. On the Blocked MAC List you can block certain users by listing their device's MAC address.

During our evaluation, we also setup the ticket printer. Installation was easy; connect it to the gateway via an Ethernet cable and then to the Printer Setup page in the Advanced Settings to enable it. However, we were surprised that it doesn't offer any buttons on the printer itself to create and print access codes. You can print them from the admin interface or use the separate Access Code Management interface from a computer or tablet, but it's certainly not as convenient as hitting a button on the printer itself like on the others we reviewed.

Overall, the Guest Internet Hotspot Gateway and Ticket Printer can be good choice for small or mid-sized hotspot deployments, keeping in mind two stipulations: to use the ticket printer you must have a PC or tablet handy and to use the integrated billing you must have a PayPal business account. But even though you must supply your own wireless access point for Wi-Fi access, the solution is relatively inexpensive. And the access code authentication simplifies the connection process for users; they don't have to enter both a username and password.

Guest Internet Solutions offers several other hotspot models that can handle up to 500 end users.

ZyXEL Hotspot Gateway and Printer: Good for midsize deployments

The ZyXEL 802.11n Hotspot Gateway (N4100) and its compatible Service Gateway Printer (SP300E) are targeted for mid-sized deployments. The gateway is available from online retailers from as low as $400 and the printer $290, both with a two-year manufacturer warranty.

The ZyXEL Hotspot Gateway is designed to provide dedicated guest access via 802.11n with the ability to connect computers or additional access points via its four Ethernet ports. It supports up to 100 concurrent users, with the ability to upgrade to a license supporting 200.

It features a fully customizable captive portal, supports on-demand user account creation with the ticket printer, self-service credit card billing, and RADIUS authentication. Unfortunately it doesn't allow easy integration with a private network, thus you may need to place it on a separate Internet connection or use your existing equipment to separate the two networks using a firewall or virtual LANs.

We found the gateway to be easy to install. After logging onto the web-based admin interface you can use the wizard to configure the initial WAN, wireless, SMTP redirection, authentication, and system settings.

The Advanced section of the admin interface is where you can fine-tune and customize the settings. On the Authentication page you can toggle between the built-in authentication, user agreement only, and no authentication.

On the Billing page you can define billing profiles with the usage time and customer fee. In addition to pre-paid billing, it also supports post-paid billing when using the optional keypad and ticket printer. This can be useful, for example, when used at a hotel; a customer can receive login information when checking in and pay for used hotspot time at check out.

On the Accounting page you can set account expiration and printout details. You can configure what billing profile each button on the ticket printer and web-based account generator applies to. Plus you can even set discounts based upon how many times you press the buttons on the ticket printer.

On the Customization page you customize the login page templates or specify a URL to build and host the page on your own server using their HTML code as a basis. Plus you can customize the text of informational, printout, and billing messages.

On the Pass Through page you can exclude certain devices or websites from authentication or the captive portal. On the LAN Devices page you can open up certain devices to the Internet via port mapping. On the Filtering page you can block users from accessing certain sites or addresses. On the Share page you can specify certain devices or resources on the LAN that users can access, such as a printer or web server. On the Bandwidth page you can specify a max upstream and downstream speed.

On the Portal page you can specify the URL to redirect users after authentication or the captive portal, or on the Advertisement page you can have users redirected to specific advertisement URLs. And on the Walled Garden page you can specify websites that users can visit without logging in, and are displayed on the login page.

On the Wireless page you can enable/disable the built-in wireless and set the SSID, channel, security and other wireless settings. In the Advanced section, you'll also find pages for configuring session tracing, SYSLOG, SNMP, and secure remote connection for sending logs via a VPN connection.

In the System Status section, you'll find pages for accessing the system status, account list and logs, current users, DHCP leases, session list, and LAN devices. In the System Tools section, you'll find pages to back/restore the configuration, upgrade firmware, configure admin accounts, upload a SSL certificate, and a tool to perform pinging.

We setup the ticket printer. Installation was easy; it connects to the gateway via Ethernet and was automatically detected. The printer features three buttons that you can press to generate an account and print-out with the login info and pricing based upon the billing profiles you've set for each button. Compared to the other printers we reviewed, however, the ZyXEL printer had the poorest print quality.

Overall, the ZyXEL hotspot solution is a good option for mid-sized deployments, though it doesn't offer a quick way to segregate guests from the private network. The ticket printer features three convenient buttons to generate and print login details, but the quality isn't the best. However, it offers great support for fee-based access, supports several credit card processors, pre-paid and post-paid billing, and a convenient discounting feature.

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