Startups Add to Switch Mix

Vivato Inc. claims to be the only company with a true wireless LAN switch, but it will soon face competition from other startups working on similar technology.

Bandspeed Inc. and Black Storm Networks Inc. are two startups following in Vivato's wake. There will be significant differences between their offerings, but they are all using some form of "smart antenna" technology to work their magic.

Vivato is so far the only company out there with a wireless LAN box that can actually switch 802.11 capacity between users. The company uses "smart" phased-array antennas to switch signals between individual users. The same technology, which is derived from wide-area wireless network technology, also helps to focus WLAN signals, giving the Vivato box far greater range than conventional access points, replacing numerous hotspots with a single box (see Vivato's Switch Bitch for more detail on the technology and how it differs from the shared media hub approach adopted by Aruba Networks Inc., Trapeze Networks Inc., and others).

Abner Germanow, wireless LAN research manager at IDC says that Vivato has been working with different types of antenna technology to deliver increased range and throughput from existing 802.11 technology.

Bandspeed's Website reveals some of what it's working on. "Bandspeed's technology leverages the principle of antenna gain, which allows transmit-power and receive-sensitivity to be focused, much like one would focus light with a flashlight, to increase the range of a Wi-Fi network," it says.

The company, based in Austin, Texas, is still officially in stealth mode. But we decided to call them up anyway. "You're right, it is in a similar vein," says Blaine Kohl, VP of marketing at Bandspeed. "Think of it as an enhanced access point with switching capabilities."

The real difference between Vivato and Bandspeed is that the Texan company will not be making and selling the boxes under its own name. Instead, Bandspeed will license its reference design and associated software to vendors that want to make products based on its technology. Vivato is expected to release product in the summer.

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) is one of the two investors that have invested an undisclosed amount in Bandspeed (the other is JatoTech Ventures). There has already been some speculation about whether Cisco will enter the wireless LAN switch market (see Cisco’s LAN Switch: Build or Buy?). This investment raises the prospect that Cisco could license Bandspeed's technology for its products -- or simply acquire the startup to get a ready-made wireless LAN switch. Cisco had not returned our calls about this by press time.

The other startup working quietly in Vivato's slipstream, Black Storm Networks, is -- we'll admit it -- more of a enigma to us. Numerous calls to the company's headquarters in San Jose, Calif., have gone unanswered. We've spoken to Ken Lawler, a general partner at Battery Ventures, one of the VCs backing Black Storm, and he told us that the startup still isn't ready to break cover.

However, Doug Klein, CTO at wireless LAN management software firm Vernier Networks Inc., says the folks at Black Storm are "old radio guys." [Ed. note: tweaking their crystal sets under the covers...] "They'll do a lot of talking about access point range," Klein reckons. This will mean access points with a range much in excess of the 300 feet that most hotspots can muster today.

However, potential rival Vivato says that, even if Black Storm does increase the range of its access points, it will probably adopt the smart hub approach taken by companies like Aruba and Trapeze (see Aruba's Switch Pitchand Trapeze’s Switch Switcheroo ) instead of delivering an actual switch. So potential customers would still be using a central box to control security and share out the available bandwidth, they just wouldn't have to roll out so many of those pesky access points.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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