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The Changing Face of Wi-Fi

If two recent developments are any indication, the familiar face of wireless computing is about to change. Could the days of individual Access Points be numbered?

Access Points, or APs, are like beacons for the growing legion of mobile computer users employing Wi-Fi to access everything from the Internet to corporate networks. Yet, since most APs cannot handle more than a couple dozen simultaneous users, multiple access points are required. As the number of individual access points increase to cover a corporate setting or a busy public hotspot, so rises the headaches involved in managing them all. Enter a new breed of Wi-Fi "switches." Wi-Fi switches are able to host hundreds of wireless users while centralizing the management, reducing the costs of an 802.11 network while also cutting the stress on harried IT personnel.

San Francisco-based startup Vivato recently unveiled a Wi-Fi switch the company claims can both boost the range of wireless networking while shrinking the number of access points required.

Navy Tech Goes Wi-Fi

Measuring 36x18x2 inches thick, the switch has the dimensions of an office cubicle panel. While headquartered in California, the technology comes straight from the high seas. U.S. Navy Aegis class cruisers employ phased array antennas to communicate with ships or track distant aircraft.

"It's like RADAR technology applied to Wi-Fi," says Phil Belanger, vice president of marketing at Vivato.

Rather than emitting a broad radio signal, the antenna can focus its emissions for point-to-point transmissions, both reducing background noise and permitting data to travel longer distances, according to Vivato.

Wi-Fi Extends Its Reach

Where prior Wi-Fi users could not go beyond a 300-foot limit, Vivato says the range of wireless networking can be extended up to four miles.

One of the first markets Vivato hopes to tap is Wireless ISPs (WISPs) looking to reach out-of-the-way users. There are other long-reaching implications for extending Wi-Fi's maximum distance.

The term 'hotspot' could become as arcane to wireless networking as teletype machines are to desktop computers. Rather than a Wi-Fi 'cloud' covering a deli or a coffee shop, a few switches could serve a metropolitan area. How would cell phone providers, let alone wired phone companies, compete?

Keeping Costs Down

For corporate clients, the name of the game is keeping costs down. Total Cost of Ownership, or TCO, is the main stumbling block for companies adopting wireless, according to a survey by the research firm Yankee Group.

Vivato tackles TCO in two ways. First, a single Vivato switch can serve a 20,000-square-foot office space normally requiring 8 to 15 APs, says Aberdeen Group analyst Russ Craig.

Also, by integrating the management functions with the switch, IT departments can easily change settings and modify security features through a single Linux interface.

Dumbed-Down APs

But Vivato isn't alone in discovering the advantages of Wi-Fi switches. Symbol Technologies recently unveiled its Mobius Axon switch. Axon has 30 APs on each switch with 70 users per AP. Symbol also introduced its Access Port, a dumbed-down Access Point. The ports are Ethernet-powered and hold only an omnidirectional antenna and a chip.

The Axon switch supports 80.11b/a/g and has a rack-mount configuration.

The trend toward consolidating Wi-Fi components is just the leading edge of an upcoming shakeout of the entire wireless networking industry.