Devicescape takes on Wi-Fi guest access problem

Devicescape is extending its WLAN sign-on system to home networks.

A maker of software that simplifies getting onto public Wi-Fi hotspots is now tackling the complexity of using the network in your own home or at a friend's house.

Consumers have been warned not to leave their home wireless LANs (WLANs) open, and security mechanisms have become both stronger and in some cases easier to set up. But to let a visiting friend use the Internet, users typically have had to reconfigure the network or enter an SSID (Service Set Identifier) and a lengthy password. For consumers who have trouble setting up a network in the first place, this can be a high barrier.

Devicescape Software Inc. offers free beta-test software that can store user sign-on information for many public hotspots and is working to get it built into devices such as Wi-Fi cameras that lack a browser or keyboard. On Tuesday, it expanded that tool to include home WLANs, with a system called Wi-Fi Buddies. Consumers can sign up for Wi-Fi Buddies, have their SSID and password stored on the company's server, and invite their friends to download the Devicescape software and get sign-on credentials for their WLAN.

Once a friend gets those credentials from Devicescape, they can start using the home WLAN without signing in or even going past a splash screen, according to the company. The WLAN owner never gives the SSID and password to a user, so it's possible to lock people out later through Devicescape's Web site without changing the password. Wi-Fi Buddies can also be used with an open home network.

Devicescape isn't alone in trying to solve the problem. The Wi-Fi Alliance's WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) specification defines two methods of setting up WLANs without having to make up or enter an SSID or encryption password. Those techniques can also be used to get visitors onto the secure network, said Som Pal Choudhury, a product line manager at Netgear, which is adopting WPS for some products. However, WPS doesn't allow access to be granted and rescinded entirely online.

Cisco Systems's Linksys division, the leading seller of home WLAN gear, recommends users either enter the SSID and password on a visitor's PC or put the device's MAC (Media Access Control) address into a filtering list on the access point, said spokeswoman Karen Sohl. Linksys doesn't use WPS now but hopes to adopt a later version.

Initial WLAN setup is a typical headache for consumers, said Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney, but how to let friends onto the LAN seems to be a less common problem, he said.

"I think when friends come over, you have a beer," Dulaney said.

Small businesses could also use Wi-Fi Buddies to grant temporary access to their networks, Devicescape says, but the company doesn't guarantee the security of the passwords it stores.

Wi-Fi Buddies has been released for current Devicescape customers and will be publicly available at the company's Web site by Thursday. It runs on Microsoft Windows XP, Vista and Mobile versions 5 and 6. The company is also working on an Apple OS X version. One thing that isn't on the horizon is Devicescape for the iPhone. The company continues to approach Apple about this but has nothing to report, said Bill McIntosh, Devicescape's vice president of marketing.

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Stephen Lawson

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