By Eric Griffith
May 03, 2004
New firmware could make Broadcom-based SOHO wireless LANs products the easiest ever to configure and secure — but does it put the company in competition with its own customers?
It’s the dirty little secret of a multi-million dollar industry: Even though everyone is embracing wireless LANs, they are still ridiculously difficult to setup. Especially for the layman who doesn’t know his SSID from his elbow.
Chipmaker Broadcom hopes to rectify the setup headaches for consumer wireless users with the introduction of SecureEZSetup (SEZS) — a firmware upgrade for its chipsets that will automate the process of connecting a client to the network. Not only that, it will secure the network using Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) .
“Some research says 80% of home Wi-Fi networks are wide open and insecure,” says David Cohen, senior marketing manager at Broadcom. He blames this squarely on the difficulty in configuring the first generation of Wi-Fi security, called wired equivalent privacy (WEP) — and he says even WPA isn’t that simple. He would know, as he’s also the chair for the Wi-Fi Alliance’s security group, which defined WPA. Cohen says the research findings didn’t surprise him one bit.
Most of Broadcom’s sales volume is in the consumer space — its OEM customers include Buffalo Technology, Belkin, Linksys, Apple, and Microsoft. So the company decided to create a “system level feature” that would make configuration much simpler.
Here’s how SEZS works: From a Windows-based client system, you run a software Wizard that will ask if this is the first time you’ve used SEZS to setup the network, or if you’ve done it before. The next screen will ask you a couple of security questions: your date of birth and you can choose from the typical options like “mother’s maiden name” or “street you grew up on.” Click Next and the Wi-Fi client and the Wi-Fi access point or router you’re connecting to will automatically be configured to communicate and to use WPA encryption.
A page for printing or saving the automatically generated SSID and WPA-Personal encryption key will come up. Both are formatted to be invulnerable to dictionary attacks. It’s for this reason that Cohen says SEZS rates a bit higher than just standard use of WPA-Personal in a home network.
“The typical user, even experts with WPA, they’ll still use passwords that could be easy to hack,” says Cohen.
To use SEZS, all the products involved must sport Broadcom chips and must be upgraded with firmware that supports the technology.
Broadcom is, of course, not the first company to try to make things easier for home WLAN setup. Some of its customers are known for it. For example, Belkin has long touted its own Wizards as making setup easier.
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Buffalo Technology, the leader in SOHO WLAN products in Asia, recently released a technology called AirStation One-Touch Secure System (AOSS) which does much the same thing as SEZS, but in a different way. Pushing a button on a client and an AP outfitted with AOSS will synch the two and secure the connection.
Morikazu Sano, vice president at Buffalo, says that AOSS use will be focused on the future connected home and making wireless work not just with computers equipment but also consumer electronics. For now at least, Broadcom’s SEZS requires a client PC to run the Wizard software.
The two companies are working together to make a AOSS hardware module to sell to Japanese consumer electronics manufactuers, which Buffalo hopes will lead to wireless TVs and the like that can easily connect to home networks.
However, that’s the extend of their working together. Cohen says: “[Buffalo] didn’t do SecureEZSetup and we didn’t do AOSS.” He says technically speaking, there’s no reason that Buffalo’s product’s couldn’t run both. Sano says Buffalo is evaluating future use of SEZS in the future but will likely wait to see how other OEMs handle it.
Sano doesn’t see the two technologies as competing. He feels that SEZS is “validating the value and importance of ease of use and a secure network.”
The SEZS firmware upgrade will only be available from OEMs, so its possible Buffalo might not even provide it.
“We’ve talked to all the partners, they’re excited about this. We’ve talked to Linksys, Belkin, Microsoft, Motorolas and a lot in the notebook space — HP, Dell, eMachines, and Acer,” says Cohen. These OEMs could have SEZS downloads available sometime this month, but no one specifically has announced plans yet.
SEZS should work on any Broadcom Wi-Fi product ever sold, from the earliest 802.11g products up to today’s dual-band 802.11a/g hardware– but it’s up to the OEMs to provide the upgrade.
Cohen says the algorithm for SEZS could be made available for incorporation into a future standard for wireless network setup.
In addition to the SecureEZSetup, Broadcom also announced a new design in its chipsets’ use of power amplifier circuits. It claims the redesign boosts the output power from 15dB to 19dB, which could improve range of products by 50%. The change puts many of the usually discrete integrated circuit components on a module with the power amplifier. It will also reduce the overall bill of materials (BOM) for OEM customers, according to Cohen.