Managing Mobile Hotspots

By Cameron Sturdevant  |  Posted 2011-03-17 Print this article Print

Hotspot-enabled smartphones and mobile hotspot devices that enable WiFi connectivity to the Internet via carrier cellular networks are a boon to mobile workers and a bane to IT managers unless adequate controls for appropriate use are implemented.

The rogue wireless access point has long been a bogeyman for IT administrators. For years, individuals have rolled their own hotspots by plugging inexpensive consumer networking gear into company networks, causing security and reliability headaches for IT departments.

If that weren't bad enough, personal hotspot technology has been migrating from being an annoying side effect of the trend toward consumerization of IT to a checklist item on product road maps, as smartphone makers have been building personal hotspot capabilities into their devices.

What began in 2009 with the Novatel Wireless line of MiFi mobile hotspots has spread to most top-of-the-line smartphone units, with pressure on carriers to match their competitors in offering this feature.

Last spring's Android 2.2 release brought mobile hotspot functionality to certain smartphones that run the Google-supplied operating system, such as Sprint's EVO 4G, and Apple iOS-based devices running on AT&T picked up mobile hotspot support with the recent iOS 4.3 update.

These mobile personal hotspots can come in handy for teams looking to sync up and share wireless WAN access at remote locations, and these devices can also extend access to a broader range of devices through the 802.11b/g/n protocol that's become a sort of lingua franca for mobile devices.

However, mobile hotspot functionality on smartphones presents many of the same problems as do rogue access points. The most obvious of these problems is the security threat posed by a WiFi networking device that can effectively reach the Internet without passing through any of the traditional wired or wireless protections an organization has in place. Data loss prevention tools depend on seeing all network traffic to do the job. Mobile-hotspot-enabled smartphones make a data thief's job that much easier.

There are also cost concerns as users make their devices available for use as a WiFi access point. It almost goes without saying that all data going through the device is tallied up on the user's account. It's not hard to rack up some hefty download numbers when a smartphone starts sharing WiFi access as if it were a coffee shop.

Further, IT managers must add mobile hotspot management to the "should have" checklist for smartphones with this capability. Aside from setting up the accounts and security settings, some of these mobile devices are independently able to provide GPS location data and can also serve as a file sharing location for anyone connected to the device. If compliance or corporate rules govern any of these settings on laptops and smartphones, consider now that these some policies must be extended to mobile hotspot systems.

Provisioning is an issue that IT managers should consider when managing hotspot-capable smartphones and mobile hotspot devices such as the Sierra Wireless Overdrive. Most devices come configured to work with the user's account. Understanding how field replacements for lost or stolen devices works, as well as the type of controls that IT has over the use of lost devices, should be part of the management discussion. For smartphones, it's likely that already existing technologies that can lock and wipe lost phones will be enough to control the hotspot technology riding on these devices. This same level of remote control is a safeguard that IT managers should consider for mobile hotspot devices.  

Cameron Sturdevant Cameron Sturdevant is the executive editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Prior to ENP, Cameron was technical analyst at PCWeek Labs, starting in 1997. Cameron finished up as the eWEEK Labs Technical Director in 2012. Before his extensive labs tenure Cameron paid his IT dues working in technical support and sales engineering at a software publishing firm . Cameron also spent two years with a database development firm, integrating applications with mainframe legacy programs. Cameron's areas of expertise include virtual and physical IT infrastructure, cloud computing, enterprise networking and mobility. In addition to reviews, Cameron has covered monolithic enterprise management systems throughout their lifecycles, providing the eWEEK reader with all-important history and context. Cameron takes special care in cultivating his IT manager contacts, to ensure that his analysis is grounded in real-world concern. Follow Cameron on Twitter at csturdevant, or reach him by email at

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