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Detecting mobile devices on a wireless guest network

The approach to detecting mobile devices on wireless guest networks is not the same as managing mobile devices on corporate networks. Our expert explains.

I am a server administrator of a company that offers wired and wireless network/Internet services to various guests of a hotel. I can detect connected laptops, but wireless handheld devices and tablets are not displayed. How can I detect mobile devices on the network, or is there a better way?

It sounds like you’re trying to run your wireless guest network like it’s a typical enterprise network.  It’s important to understand that it’s not.  Guest networks are a completely different animal from corporate networks, and have different security concerns.  In an enterprise, your security efforts are focused on protecting all of the devices connected to your network from each other and the sensitive information stored on your network from those users.  You have to balance your security controls with the need for systems to communicate with each other directly.  However, this is mitigated by the fact that all of the users on your network are trusted, at least to some extent.

In the case of a guest network, you have a different challenge: isolating guests from each other so they cannot cause each other damage.  There is probably no reason to allow guests to communicate with each other directly.  There’s also no sensitive information on the network that your company needs to protect.  (This is true, right?  Your guest network should be completely segregated from your corporate network; if it's not, then that's an entirely different problem).

So, instead of trying to apply enterprise management tools to your guest network for detecting mobile devices, consider using one of the many products designed expressly for this purpose.  You’ve certainly seen the popular captive Web portals used on many public networks.  These systems route users who connect to the guest network to a registration page that requires consent to the terms of service, registration and payment of a fee (if applicable).  Only after passing through this portal do users gain the Internet access they desire.  At the same time, the portal collects information about the devices on your network that you can analyze to gain insight into their characteristics.  This sounds like the right answer to your problem.

This was last published in November 2011

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