Propagate Looks to Clear the Air
The Acton, Mass.-based company has signed on WLAN chipset designer Atheros Communications and consumer-oriented access-point vendor Netgear Inc. as initial partners.
The big question is whether the young company can persuade enterprise access-point vendors and other chipset vendors to incorporate its code into their products.
The software can be implemented on all the existing flavors of the 802.11 standard (a/b/g), as long as the underlying chipset in the access point supports power control functions, the company says. Some older 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4Ghz) chipsets don't have this feature.
The software enables an access point placed in a wireless LAN network to "listen" to the RF environment and change the signal strength of the radio up or down. It can also switch radio channels to get the best coverage so that it won't interfere with other access points within its active radius (200 to 300 feet, depending on the 802.11 specification).
If the software is used in a "mixed environment" of new multimode radio nodes and older 802.11b access points, then the software tries to get out of the channels the legacy radios use. "We try to pick channels that don't interfere with our noisy neighbors," chuckles Paul Callahan, co-founder and VP of marketing and business development at Propagate.
Some of these signal-strength and channel-hopping capabilities are also available in the WLAN switching systems that are starting to arrive on the market, notably those from Airespace Inc., AirFlow Networks, Aruba Networks Inc., and Trapeze Networks Inc. (See Vivato's Switch Bitch for a lively look at WLAN switching}.)
However, Floyd Backes, CTO and the "major influence" in the development of the software (he also implemented the world's first wire-speed spanning tree Ethernet bridge while at DEC), says there are technical differences between the switch approach and Propagate's approach. "We don't do anything to the MAC [Media Access Controller]," he notes. Most of the switch vendors have developed systems that bring part or all of the MAC functionality back into a centralized box that controls "thin" or "dumb" access points with very little in the way of "intelligence" onboard.
Callahan claims that the Propagate software is complementary to what the switch vendors are doing, because they are also simplifying security and management concerns, while his company is entirely focused on RF. "We expect that we'll be partnering with a lot of those guys," he says.
In fact, analysts say that the company will have to do a lot of partnership deals in order to succeed. The company says it's talking to other vendors but won't name names at the moment.
Ken Furer, analyst at IDC says the company will need to snag chipset vendors like Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Intersil Corp. (Nasdaq: ISIL) if it is to get its software widely distributed in the market.
"They need to be aligned with the chip vendors because they need to be sure that their software works with those products," says Furer.
"They should look at other top five chip vendors," concurs Gartner/Dataquest analyst, Joe Byrne, adding Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) to the list.
However, Byrne feels that the fact that the company is offering a software product might work in its favor. "The key thing is that it’s a low-cost, software-based technology and that's going to minimize barriers to adoption."
"Low-cost" is a key term for Propagate -- a 10-person company that is determined to stay small and keep the burn-rate low. The company says it is funded by angel investors but won't say how much it has in the bank. IDC's Furer figures they have around $2.3 million.
If nothing else, this approach marks an interesting difference from some of the other startups trying to make names for themselves in the WLAN market (see Trapeze Swings $34M and Switch Startups Seek Funding).
— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung