Soft Access Points on the Way

By Eric Griffith

May 07, 2003

Before the end of the year a couple of software solutions should turn wireless boxes into access points: PCTEL's will work with just about any laptop, while chip-designer Synad's uses its software to make instant dual-band access points with its Mercury silicon.

While software that turns a PC into an access point is not a new phenomenon -- both Microsoft and Intel have reportedly been working on them for a while, and freeware like Host AP can do this with the right client card on a Linux system-- it looks like software-based access points (or "soft APs") might get a chance to go mainstream this year. But not all soft APs will be limited to just notebook PCs.

Take, for instances, FAB-less WLAN chip designer Synad. The company's Mercury5G chipset was supposed to be an 802.11a powerhouse, but it pulled the chips back to turn the set into a two-chip dual-band product with full 802.11a, b, and g support. That chip set is currently sampling, reference designs using Mercury are with select customers, and the company expects to announce some of those customers this summer. But those who come late to using Mercury can also take advantage of Synad's code for the Linux-kernel based soft AP called AgileAP.

"Many people have up to now been looking at dual-band a-g-b as a client play," says Synad's vice president of marketing, Kevin Mapplebeck. "We're turning that on its head, [using AgileAP to] create a single access point that can connect to a number of standards."

They do this with a single radio. Using the Mercury chips' ability to rapidly switch bands, AgileAP takes advantage of the full bandwidth available for all users, whether on 5GHz 802.11 or 2.4GHz 802.11b/g. AgileAP uses a technology Synad calls "band-interleaving," where the ratio of 2.4 vs. 5 GHz signal use can be dynamically adjusted or user determined. For example, the access point could look for 2.4GHz signals 2/3 of the time, and 5GHz signals only 1/3 -- good if you've got a preponderance of 802.11b/g users.

Synad is not going to make access points themselves, but intends to supply the software to its chip customers to speed them along in access point development. The AgileAP with Mercury5G products will work with any nodes using 802.11abg, not just clients based on the Mercury chips.

On the more traditional side of soft APs is PCTEL and its Segue SAM. This software will work with most 802.11-based network cards in Windows notebooks to turn the computer into an access point. The notebook needs simply be connected to the wired network using an Ethernet connection to provide full network access to other WLAN clients. PCTEL hopes Segue SAM use will lower the cost of establishing WLANs as extra infrastructure products will not be needed in some places.

Don't look for Segue SAM on store shelves though. PCTEL will be selling it only to wireless client card manufacturers and chip makers for bundling, or license it to service providers to give to subscribers for extending broadband use. Segue SAM won't be available in its final form until the third quarter of this year.

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