Simpler Wi-Fi security protects newbies

Broadcom Corp. is promising easy-to-use wireless security through bundled software which automatically configures settings and turns on security. The company says its new silicon should be in products this month.

“Even though WPA security is mandatory on Wi-Fi branded equipment, 80 per cent of people still don’t turn on security,” said Gordon Lindsay, Broadcom’s European wireless product manager.

WPA is too complicated for non-technical users, Lindsay said, so SecureEZSetup will do the job instead. Broadcom’s silicon already appears in Linksys Group Inc. and US Robotics Inc. wireless LAN equipment.

When software on the client spots a new wireless access point, it launches a wizard which turns on security, prompts the user to set a security question — for password recovery — and reboots the access point in a secure mode. A software overlay to WPA eliminates the need to put in passwords manually, registers the PC and installs WPA keys at both ends of the connection. As this is aimed at consumers who don’t have a RADIUS server, the default setting puts WPA in pre-shared key (PSK) mode, rather than use the extensible authentication protocol (EAP).

The software is so far designed for consumers setting up a single-AP network in a home or small office. That is by far the greatest market for wireless LANs so far, said Lindsay, commenting: “The enterprise Wi-Fi market has been stagnant in 2003, but it is beginning to pick up now WPA is in place.”

However, Broadcom’s wizard could easily be adapted to the needs of enterprise users, he said. For instance allowing IT managers to set up a device for their branches which will secure itself, select EAP settings to authenticate with the corporate RADIUS server, and connect to management systems when turned on.

Several details are well thought out: during a demonstration, Lindsay could not at first start the wizard, because it only works when the AP is freshly switched on. This is to prevent tardy users who don’t set the security up straight away having their access points tampered with by war-drivers. The downside, for both business and consumer, is that SecureEZSetup access points can only be configured from Broadcom-based Wi-Fi clients. Lindsay is happy to see this as a benefit to Broadcom, of course.

Software is becoming an increasingly strong distinguishing factor for wireless silicon vendors, said Lindsay. System vendors have to move quickly to bring out new generations of products and usually paste their logos onto existing utilities provided by the underlying silicon vendors such as Broadcom or Atheros Communications Inc.

Broadcom also launched a more integrated power amplifier that increases the range of Broadcom’s 802.11g implementation by up to 30 per cent, and is cheaper to make and less power hungry, so it could appear in smaller devices.

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