Should you set up a public WiFi hotspot?

a person using a tablet at the beach

Monday, 9 September, 2019

The UK relies so heavily on broadband that it’s become one of our most important home comforts.

Yes, when we’re away from home, we miss reliable broadband more than a well-stocked fridge – or even a shower where the mould and stains are reassuringly familiar.

Our love of stable internet connectivity has been noted by businesses, who use public WiFi hotspots to attract customers, encouraging them to both stay longer and spend more.

And the benefits are not limited to hotels and holiday lets. Anywhere that receives visitors can benefit, because hotspots are great marketing tools.

When an organisation provides public WiFi, it can set its own website as the landing page and send targeted advertisements and offers to customers.

The costs aren’t high, and set-up is easy. But there are dangers to consider before setting up a public WiFi zone…

How to set up a public WiFi connection

A public WiFi hotspot does not usually call for lots of new equipment. But it does need fast, reliable business broadband.

Often a superfast or ultrafast connection is fine if it’s intended for use by a modest number of people, though large or busy places may do better with an Ethernet connection.

Some business broadband includes guest WiFi ‘out of the box’. This makes life easier, since it isn’t hard to create a hotspot from scratch.

However, that hotspot must be a discrete network, and not just reliant on a WiFi password.

Sharing unsecured WiFi with guests or customers is highly dangerous. For firms handling customer data, an insecure network could make them liable under GDPR for any breach.

Hot but not bothered

When building a hotspot, the aim is to have a ring-fenced network for guests. It must operate away from other in-house networks, and be protected against criminal activity as far as possible.

The first step towards achieving this is to go into the router and create a new local network for customers. Secure it with appropriate settings, a unique password and SSID.

For the SSID, something obvious like ‘Public WiFi’ can help users connect quickly and easily.

This approach separates business data from customer data and the risks that come with public access.

It reduces the risk of malware received via customers’ browsing being transferred to the business network.

And in theory, that’s everything you need to worry about. The business can simply give customers the password to this new network. Though in practice, there’s more to do…

Safety first, safety second

Any WiFi hotspot must be well protected, since it will be used by many different people to visit diverse parts of the web.

Guest WiFi also runs close to data that the host organisation has a legal duty to process securely.

So, any router used to power a hotspot should have WPA2 security enabled and WPS turned off.

Good antivirus software (including a firewall) is vital, and the SSIDs for any other WiFi networks on-site should be hidden.

Those wanting the most from their hotspot may also consider a captive portal.

This can take visitors to a home page, asking them to accept terms and conditions before they can log in.

Use of a captive portal may mean buying new hardware. But it also limits the owner’s liability if customers do anything dubious via the hotspot, ensuring greater control.

Captive portals are also used to collect user data and provide marketing tools, potentially recouping some of the costs involved in their setup.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!