New Wi-Fi Chip Enhances SOHO Security

By Eric Griffith

June 19, 2002

A new reference design for an 802.11b chip from NextComm with 'Key Hopping' security has certification from WECA.

NextComm of Bellevue, WA, is entering the 802.11 silicon arena with hopes of improving wireless LAN security, especially for home and SOHO users.

The NextCom NC7010 is a Media Access Control (MAC) chip that controls data packet flow across a 802.11b WLAN system. It's suitable for use in CardBus, miniPCI and access point/gateway products. The chip's key feature, however, is an automatic security function called "Key Hopping," which the company feels is ideal for home and SOHO wireless LANs where security (such as setting up WEP keys and changing the SSID) can go by the wayside.

The company has already received Wi-Fi certification from the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) for its reference design based on the NC7010, so customers who sign on to use will immediately have a Wi-Fi compatibility (though individual products still have to go through WECA testing to get certification).

"Key Hopping is a rapid key change," says NextComm CEO Jerry Wang. "After fifteen minutes someone can crack WEP and it's not RC4's fault. It's the key management. People don't change the key often enough. We avoid weak keys so it takes longer to decode a packet, and we change the shared key as often as every few seconds."

Products based on the NC7010 MAC chip will have two modes, a legacy mode to support standard WEP, and the regular Key Hopping mode. The latter ill be automatic between compliant client systems, i.e. those based on the NC7010. In access points, Wang says a dual-mode of legacy and Key Hopping will be used to support the largest possible number of clients.

Client setup will be done through a Windows based utility, while access points will get a Web-based configuration. NextComm provides an API for vendor who want to create other configuration methods.

The NC7010 features a "blast" speed mode to increase throughput above the 11Mbps data rate of 802.11b.

The chip will also be cheaper, says Wang, because fewer external components are used.

"We've been around a while, but this is our first chip," says Wang. "We've got three more coming out this year and early next, our next generation with 11g and a/b. The current one [NC7010] is b only, but the multimode chip will be relatively the same in architecture."

Wang couldn't mention any current customers, but says that three manufacturers have licenses to use the NC7010. Products using Key Hopping may be available as early as August, depending upon the companies getting FCC approval.

Eric Griffith is the managing editor of 802.11 Planet.

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