Chipmaker Broadcom Corp. on Monday announced a software tool designed to attack the problem of security on home wireless LANs by eliminating the need to manually enter network settings.
At the same time, the Irvine, Calif.-based company said it would update its 54g chipset to increase the range of 802.11g products by as much as 30 percent.
The vast majority of consumer WLANs—more than 80 percent, according to Broadcom—have no security, meaning that enterprise users are likely to be exposing their data to the world when they access the Internet via Wi-Fi at home. Most WLAN hardware is designed to work out of the box with security turned off, in order to make connecting as simple as possible.
Broadcoms new software, called SecureEZSetup, takes a different tack, turning security on by default but making setup almost fully automatic. Users enter the answers to two questions, such as their birth date and pets name, and the setup tool does the rest, configuring the hardwares Service Set Identifier (SSID) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security, registering the PC on the network and installing WPA keys on both the PC and access point.
The two questions are used to generate the WPA keys, meaning the information can be recalled if needed, unlike a randomly generated string of characters. No other password entry or configuration is needed, Broadcom said.
“In our belief, this is revolutionary,” said Jeff Abramowitz, Broadcoms senior director of wireless LAN marketing. “Youve just got to remember your birthday and your pets name to set up a network. Thats a lot easier than learning about WPA, SSIDs and encryption. For enterprises, the home has been a vulnerability, and this locks down that access point.”
WPA is a stopgap technology for encryption and authentication, built into all Wi-Fi gear, that fixes the problems of the original Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard and paves the way for the upcoming IEEE 802.11i standard. SecureEZSetup uses WPA-Personal security.
One catch is that SecureEZSetup will only auto-configure other hardware enabled with the technology. Other certified Wi-Fi gear will work with SecureEZSetup hardware, but security and network setup must be done manually on that hardware, as usual, Broadcom said.
But Broadcom has the industry clout to push its idea to equipment makers. The company is the worlds largest WLAN chipmaker by revenue, and 71 percent of all retail 802.11g products sold to date, as well as most 802.11g notebooks, use Broadcoms chips, the company said. Broadcom is making the code available immediately to hardware manufacturers, who have the option of offering it to consumers as a software update.
A software development kit (SDK) shipped with the code allows manufacturers to give the setup tool an individual look and feel. Broadcom said it may issue a version of the software for enterprise branch offices, allowing the easy setup to be combined with centralized management. The company expects enabled products to be on the market this quarter.
Broadcom, active in the IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance, is also offering the setup software as an industry standard.
With consumer WLANs far outselling their enterprise counterparts, the absence of security on home networks is a real concern for enterprise IT managers, according to industry observers.
“Even if your business doesnt have a wireless LAN, you are going to have employees using them at home,” said Gartner analyst Ian Keene. “Small businesses and consumers either cant be bothered to switch on security or dont know how to. Something needs to be done.”
Gartner currently advises businesses to deal with the issue by using virtual private networks (VPNs), which create a secure connection over a public network.
The security problem was never ironed out because it was not seen as a barrier to WLAN sales, which are overwhelmingly to consumers, according to analyst Will Strauss of Forward Concepts. Now, with businesses becoming more concerned about the security of their data on employees home networks, Wi-Fi could face resistance unless it can be made safer to use.
“This kind of thing is necessary if were going to increase the penetration of wireless LANs,” Strauss told eWEEK. “So far, Broadcom are the only people doing it this way, while everybody else is making consumers read the instructions.”
Broadcom also said it has specified a new power amplifier module for its 54g-brand 802.11g products, boosting performance and signal range by combining all radio-frequency (RF) components into a single chip. The module, which includes power amplifier, power detector, switches and filters, also allows manufacturers to lower costs and reduce time to market for 802.11g products, Broadcom said.
Abramowitz said the modules improvement in performance will particularly benefit hardware that needs consistently high bandwidth, such as video servers and IP telephony. The module will work with Broadcoms existing 54g chipset as well as for the single-chip 802.11g product now sampling.
Broadcoms competition in WLAN chips includes Intersil Corp. and Atheros Communications Inc., which has grown quickly into the markets third-biggest player, as well as semiconductor giants such as Intel Corp. and Texas Instruments.