GPSolo

ROAD WARRIOR: Guest WiFi

By Jeffrey Allen

For those of us who work outside our physical office frequently, the availability of WiFi makes our life much easier. Simply put, what we can do without Internet access looks very limited by comparison to what we can do with Internet access. Having Internet access available to us almost everywhere has become quite commonplace. Coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, other law offices, and many public areas frequently have WiFi available. Historically, hotels have charged for WiFi. But that model no longer dominates, and hotels often offer free WiFi in lobbies and guest rooms. Generally, hotels still charge for access in conference rooms.

As a Road Warrior, you should know that you can buy a cellular hot spot that fits in your pocket and lets you carry your own Internet access that works wherever you can get a cellular connection to your provider. Most providers have this available.

Even if you have acquired one of these devices, you will likely find the WiFi available locally to you works faster and undoubtedly costs less. The downside of using it, however, is that it provides a far less secure connection than using your own controlled and secure hot spot. To minimize exposure and confidentiality issues resulting from the lower security offered by these public WiFi connections, you will want to make sure that you use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect your communications. A VPN effectively provides you with a tunnel through cyberspace, insulating your communications and protecting them (and you) from general public access to your transmissions. You can set up your own VPN or use a commercial VPN. The commercial VPNs usually provide service to you on a subscription basis for a fee. You can easily find commercial VPNs and sign up for their service. There are several very good ones. I have used VPN Unlimited (vpnunlimitedapp.com) for the last few years and like it. You can also set up your own VPN, if you have the technological know-how or an IT person who does.

The flip side of using the VPN and taking advantage of the no-charge Internet access you may find in another attorney’s office or a public building, restaurant, coffee shop, or hotel is that, when other attorneys (and sometimes clients) come to your office, they may want to use the Internet. When this happens, you have three options: (1) you can tell them you do not have guest Internet access; (2) you can allow them to access the Internet using the same network that you use for your office; or (3) you can make a guest network available to them (which operates separately from your main office network). Of these options, number two is really number two. Stay away from it; it exposes your network and confidential data needlessly. Number one leaves your data protected, but clients, guests, and other attorneys may see it as an inconvenience. Number three provides what I consider the best option. It costs you virtually nothing, it keeps your data protected by keeping outsiders off your main network, and it provides Internet access to guests, clients, and other attorneys as a courtesy.

The easiest way to set up a guest network involves purchasing a WiFi router that has the ability to set up two networks. You can find two-network WiFi routers through Amazon, Best Buy, Fry’s, Costco, or just about anywhere else that sells modern electronic equipment. If you already have a good single-band router and don’t want to buy a dual-band router, you can add a second single-band router to your equipment. The routers keep getting better, so you may get a better network from the newer router and, for that reason, replacing an older single-band router with a newer two-band router makes good sense. You can find excellent dual-band routers for between $100 and $250. You can find single-band routers for as little as $25, but the faster, better ones are in the range of $80 and up. Accordingly, if you have a good, fast, single-band router and don’t want to upgrade to a dual-band router, you might think about picking up a mid-range ($40-$50) single-band router for the guest network. Brands to look for include Linksys (linksys.com), Netgear (netgear.com), D-Link (us.dlink.com), and Asus (asus.com). If you choose to go with two routers, try to position the routers as far away from each other as you can to reduce the risk that they will interfere with each other.

Whichever way you go, connect the new router to your broadband network and follow the directions to access the router and set up the networks. Give them different names and different passwords. Use strong passwords for both (might as well keep strangers from using it without your permission). You will likely want two passwords for each, one for administrative access and the other for Internet access. Make them both strong. A strong password includes alphabetical (upper- and lowercase), numeric, and symbolic characters, does not tie closely to you (i.e., not your birthday or address, etc.), and contains a minimum of eight characters. Longer is better. A good example of a strong password: “bEwArE#ThE#jAbBeRwOcK$666”. Random combination passwords offer the most strength but are the most difficult to remember. You can use software to generate and store random character passwords.

Do not give out the administrative password to anyone other than a trusted employee or IT person who will have administrative responsibility for your network. In a small office, you may do your own IT work. I do; and as a result, I have not given my administrative password to anyone (I do have a copy locked in a safe for emergency situations). You could provide the Internet access password for your office network to everyone in your office who will connect to it. A better alternative is to connect them yourself and lock the password away. If they already have the network connection established and stored in their computer and/or mobile device, they do not need the password.

With respect to the guest network, while you could connect everyone yourself, this imposes an unnecessary burden on you and your time. No good reason exists to do that as opposed to providing the guest network user with the password. Many offices make access instructions available in printed form. Even though the guest network emanates from the same router as your office network, it does not connect to your office network, keeping your office information secure. Nevertheless, you will want to change your guest network’s password every few weeks to minimize the risk of the password getting out and allowing unwelcome strangers to access it and get free Internet at your expense. Besides, if too many users jump onto your network, it will likely slow down the network’s operations.

While probably not as critical, it remains good advice to follow the same model at your house as you do in your office. A dual-network router will not cost significantly more than a single-network router. Setting up a guest network at your house keeps your personal information secure. If you bring work home and have some of the office files on your home network, it will also keep this information safe and secure. If you do bring work home (or work out of your home as your primary place of business), consider having three networks at your house: one for the office, one personal, and one guest network. You won’t find it significantly more difficult to set up three as opposed to two networks. You can find some tri-band routers, which would allow use of a single router to set up all three networks. This scores high on the convenience analysis, but, as a downside, good tri-band routers tend to cost more than single- and dual-band routers. Expect to pay between $200 and $350 for a good tri-bad router, depending on speed and the feature set. If you do not want to pay for a tri-band router, you may find a dual-band and a single-band router for less and accomplish the same thing. One of the newest innovations from the router providers gives you two or three pieces that work together to give you strong coverage throughout your location without buying separate network extenders. Examples include Netgear’s Orbi ($347.97 for a two-piece tri-band setup at Amazon and $535 for a three-piece setup) and the Linksys Velop tri-band whole home system ($449 at Amazon).

When setting up WiFi routers, at home or your office, keep the following in mind:

  1. Higher beats lower. If you have a two-story location, try to set up the router(s) on the second floor as opposed to the first.
  2. You want to limit walls and large objects between the router and the connecting devices. This will not always prove easy or even possible (particularly when you consider that you will likely connect smartphones, tablets, printers, scanners, and laptops as well as desktops to the network).
  3. The closer you are to the network, the more likely you will have a good and fast connection.
  4. If you have issues with access in some locations, you can get a network extender (or several). Network extenders essentially rebroadcast the signal from the router to give you better access over a larger area. With proper positioning, they can also carry the signal to an otherwise dead zone.
  5. In choosing a router, check compatibility. Some routers appear to work better with some Internet providers than with others.
  6. If you use multiple routers, get as much separation as possible to minimize interference with each other.

Jeffrey Allen (jallenlawtekblog.com) is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. He is Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport and a member of the Board of Editors of Experience magazine. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he is most recently coauthor (with Ashley Hallene) of Technology Tips for Lawyers and Other Business Professionals. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He teaches at California State University of the East Bay.