An overview of Open Source Wi-Fi

By Sean Michael Kerner

May 21, 2004

Wireless networks and access points are not reserved for Windows users. Linux-based projects are popping up everywhere to create inexpensive WLANs of all kinds.

If you’ve read a tech post in the past 18 months, you’ve seen dozens of articles about open source software and how it’s transforming all verticals in the tech industry. Open Source is generally touted as a disruptive technology that is a boon for innovation and something that lowers costs and barriers to entry.

And the open source movement has the same impact on Wi-Fi.

There are a number of interesting and innovative open source projects that enable Wi-Fi and make it less expensive to set up an access point or even just wireless connectivity in a home or a small group of users.

The general belief when it comes to setting up Wi-Fi connectivity is that you need a wireless access point (AP) device and computers with wireless client cards. This site has reviewed dozens of consumer and professional hotspots, some better than others. However, one thing always remains the same: the access point always costs more than the wireless card.

Guess what? You don’t always need a fixed wireless router to create your own WLAN. You can do this with two machines that both have Wi-Fi cards and leave the more expensive access points in the picture.

There are a number of different ways to accomplish this with open source GNU / Linux based software available for free. A typical Linux distribution will usually allow you to configure a Linux machine as a “wired” router, so turning it into a wireless router isn’t really a big step.

For example, if you have a desktop computer in your home office and want to create a WLAN for the laptop that you or other family members use in the rest of the house (or to create a point access for a console gaming platform like Xbox or PlayStation2), you will only need two Wi-Fi cards.

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The caveat for the 96% of home users who aren’t running Linux would be that they should move away from Windows or run a Linux virtual machine inside their Windows installation and – if you’re lucky. – make it work.

However, as with a lot of things in the open source world, there is another way. You don’t even need to install Linux. If you have an old PC with a CD-ROM, then you have the minimum system requirements to create a Linux based WLAN access point. To do this, use the Linux LiveCD Router project. It will allow you to simply boot from the CD and have a working Linux terminal, with a Wi-Fi router.

To take open source Wi-Fi solutions one step further, there are a number of tools available for free that will allow you to create and manage a public hotspot. There are three projects in particular that are under community development and in service today that are worth mentioning: Sesame Wi-Fi, ZoneCD de Public IP and the Fewer Hotspots Server networks (popularized by the Austin Wireless City Project in Texas).

Sesame Wi-Fi is perhaps the most difficult of the three projects to grab hold of for those worried about getting their hands dirty. The free version unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of documentation in English. The complexity of the setup and the lack of direct and easy integration with a payment system is an obvious downside to this otherwise very functional project.

Public IPs ZoneCD is a simple Hotspot on a CD solution. Like the LiveCD Router, it is a bootable CD-ROM Linux distribution, but with the graphical tools to freely create a hotspot in minutes. If you really want to, you can also download a version of the ZoneCD without the GUI (for those who live in terminal windows and the command line).

Out of the box, the ZoneCD is almost capable of creating a commercially viable open source hotspot. It includes full user registration and authentication as well as content filtering to prevent access to inappropriate content and downloads. The project also easily enables fully customizable login pages to allow hotspot creators to have their own branded entity. To top it off, ZoneCD’s hotspot administration functions include daily log sending, live usage statistics, and end-user data feed access.

Recent newspaper articles have helped popularize the use of the Less Networks Hotspot server in Austin. The project is currently providing Wi-Fi hotspots in 50 locations across the city to more than 8,700 registered users. The project has no commercial ambition and aims to provide free access to registered people. Like ZoneCD, the access point itself can have its own unique branding to create the connection experience that an access point wishes to create. Unlike ZoneCD, at present, Less Networks solutions are not CD-based and require installation on a dedicated machine.

You can do more with less when using open source solutions for Wi-Fi. From creating an access point to a full hotspot, the tools are there. Stay tuned as we continue our exploration of open source Wi-Fi with more in-depth tutorials and reviews of the projects we’ve mentioned here and more as they emerge.

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