Intersil Provides WPA for PRISM

Wi-Fi chip maker Intersil Corporation announced today that a software upgrade supporting Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) on all of its chipsets is officially available to original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and developer customers.

According to Chris Henningsen, vice president of marketing at Intersil, the software has been available since mid-December 2002. The company is making the announcement public today to make sure its customers are on track for upcoming interoperability testing while using WPA. Testing by the Wi-Fi Alliance is scheduled to begin in February, with WPA upgrades for products soon to follow to end-users.

WPA is a new security standard for 802.11-based networks set forth by the Wi-Fi Alliance , the industry consortium behind interoperability standards and testing for 802-11based networks. It’s actually a subset of the 802.11i specification which won’t be finished until later this year. In the enterprise WPA will work similar to any 802.1X authentication system: clients and access points that must have WPA enabled for encryption to and from an authentication server with centralized access management. In home wireless networks, WPA provides security with a pre-shared key mode — no authentication server is needed, but the encryption keys are refreshed with each new connection. (Home and residential Wi-Fi networks will beat out enterprise and hotspot deployments as the dominant area for WLAN growth in 2003, according to Aberdeen Group’s 2003 Information Technology Outlook.)

“I’m happy to see the Wi-Fi Alliance do this,” says Henningsen, who acknowledges that the group, along with the IEEE , which is behind the 802.11 specifications, “can be conservative” when it comes to moving new technology out into general usage. “It’ll deal with nagging problems we’ve hade with WEP for years.”

WEP, short for Wired Equivalent Privacy, is the current encryption built into Wi-Fi networks, but it’s infamous for being easily cracked into, assuming someone has the right tools and the patience to do so.

Intersil customers using any of the PRISM chipsets can get the WPA software upgrade from the corporate/restricted access area of Intersil’s Web site. End-users of Wi-Fi products will have to wait until the vendors shipping the products make the upgrade available.

Despite the cost to Intersil in implementing WPA on its chips — Henningsen says that despite being a semi-conductor company, it employs “more programmers than IC [integrated circuit] designers” — there will be no cost to OEM customers for the upgrade. Because of that, he’s “betting they’re going to pass [that cost] on through. I doubt you’ll see anyone charge for it.”

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