SoftAPs get Big Backing

By Ed Sutherland

December 05, 2003

Intel, PCTEL, and others are pushing a software-based access point that could soon be standard in turning clients into a part of the infrastructure, but issues of security and simple practicality remain.

As Wi-Fi gadgets fly off holiday store shelves, microchip goliath Intel joined a growing number of companies seeking to make the stand-alone wireless access point obsolete.

Intel President Paul Otellini told a recent gathering of analysts at the company's new Grantsdale chipset that for 2004 Pentium 4 chips will include software able to replicate a Wi-Fi access point on the PC. Access Points are at the heart of private wireless local area networks and public Wi-Fi hotspots, connecting users of wireless laptops and handheld computers to the Internet.

Although Intel will include the software providing the technology for APs, users will initially still need to provide a Wi-Fi adapter card or use embedded Wi-Fi like Intel's own Centrino.

The Centrino chipset available with many laptop computers has brought in $2 billion during its first year and placed the company in a dominant position for supplying Wi-Fi. Intel's plan to incorporate much of the stand-alone AP technology in PCs puts them in direct competition with the likes of Netgear, Cisco and others supplying the hardware to offices and homes.

While there have been previous moves to integrate APs in software In-Stat/MDR analyst Allen Nogee believes this time it is different: "What Intel is proposing is a bit more complete as they are proposing full access point functionality that these other solutions don't have."

Besides acting as a "proof of concept" application for its new Prescott Pentium 4 processor, there are many holes in Intel's campaign to replace hardware-based APs with computer-based Wi-Fi connections.

"I, myself, have to wonder what the real use of this would be?" says Nogee. The analyst says with most consumer-grade APs priced below $150, he doesn't "see the PC as a good replacement for this."

Others have pointed out for a computer to behave as a Wi-Fi access point, PCs would need to be running continuously.

During this week's Wi-Fi Planet Conference & Expo, PCTEL of Chicago announced it would begin offering its Segue Soft Access Module (SAM) to Wi-Fi equipment makers.

"Traditional Wi-Fi networks require standalone access points and routers. Segue SAM software replaces those access points and routers, automatically scans the user's PC settings, and configures itself within seconds," said Marty Singer, PCTEL CEO.

Singer said the software targets both enterprise and home Wi-Fi users. Wireless business professionals, according to Singer, "can instantly set up a wireless network with other participants at an offsite meeting."

PCTEL claims its softAP is secure and will "keep unauthorized devices off the network."

Echoing Intel's Otellini, Singer says the PCTel software "eliminates the complexity of setting up a wireless network" for home users.

For enterprises, the ability for every laptop and desktop computer to host a wireless network could become a nightmare of innumerable rogue Wi-Fi APs. Countless security products are devoted to identifying and removing such unauthorized WLANs.

Nogee sees other security headaches associated with softAPs.

"With new Windows viruses appearing daily, do you really want an access point that can be infected with a virus? And you know a virus will be aimed at this application if it becomes widespread."

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