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Sputnik to Put WLAN Networking Into Orbit?

Ambitious startup Sputnik Inc. wants to greatly broaden the market for sharing broadband Internet access among users via a wireless LAN (WLAN) connection pioneered by “freenet” groups. The company has developed software intended to serve as a base for corporate wireless applications, prioritize who surfs when over the WLAN connection, and allow enterprises and consumers to spend less on WLAN infrastructure.

The software does away with the most expensive element of the WLAN equation – the access point or gateway. The access point is the part of the wireless LAN system that is connected to the Internet or a company’s intranet and beams out data to laptops and other devices with compatible cards that are within range.

Sputnik’s software allows customers to set up a notebook, connected to a wired broadband Internet service, as their wireless access point. The only additional equipment required is an 802.11 card based on the extremely popular Prism 2 chipset design – originally developed by Intersil Corp. – and an antenna. Sputnik’s CTO, the splendidly named Arthur F. Tyde III, says that the cost of setting up a community wireless access point using Sputnik (including buying a “second-hand laptop”) should be less than that for a high-end dedicated WLAN gateway, which currently runs about $1,000. Such a gateway would, for example, allow people with wireless-enabled devices in separate apartments to share Internet access with just one broadband connection, or even access the Internet outdoors.

However, this is not the limit of the company’s ambitions. Tyde says that he sees enterprise customers as Sputnik’s bread and butter. To that end, the company describes its Sputnik Gateway Enterprise Edition as the wireless equivalent of Apache, the wildly successful open-source Internet server software.

The company says that third-party developers will be able to put messaging and distributed computing and storage applications on top of its enterprise gateway. Sputnik says that it can support any of the myriad 802.11 WLAN standards out there. This could be attractive for corporate customers that want to upgrade to faster WLAN standards such as 802.11a as they come on the market.

“We're not based on any particular radio technology,” says David LaDuke, Sputnik’s CEO. “We use 802.11b today because it's become a commodity and is going into so many places and devices. Our software supports 802.11a, g, and the rest of the alphabet soup. Heck, it supports regulated spectrum, and you could even run it over a wired network – it's totally radio independent.”

Security is generally the biggest issue on the mind of IT administrators when they come to implement a wireless network. “Our authentication has been tested,” says Tyde. “It's all 128-bit public key based, and SSL [secure socket layer] based – highly uncrackable. You can sniff the net [break into the network using sniffer software and a laptop with a WLAN card] though, once the authentication has happened and the link has been established. We tell people to use whatever VPN software they use on the Internet. Being on Sputnik is not a substitute for a secure VPN solution.”

The Sputnik Community Edition Gateway borrows some of the ideas of community WLAN projects like SFLan in the U.S and Consume.net in the U.K. That is, enabling users to use up “spare” bandwidth from PCs connected to a wired cable or DSL connection. “We are very involved with community networks like SFNet, Seattle, Pittsburgh, NYC, and others,” notes Tyde.

However, the Sputnik site cautions that users of the Sputnik “network” must check their ISP’s terms of use before sharing their bandwidth with all and sundry. If community WLAN Internet access really takes off, ISPs could come to take a dim view of communal access – after all, they’ll be losing money on the deal. LaDuke insists, however, that Sputnik wants to work with ISPs that wish to create their own wireless services.

Unlike many of the public WLAN communities, Sputnik has not tried to create a mesh network using WLAN technology to extend the coverage of their community WLANs. Some groups have developed wireless mesh systems that can pass data (Internet or otherwise) back and forth over their access points without recourse to mainstream networks, apart from the initial cable connection (see Mesh Gathers Momentum).

“We have not implemented mesh networking on the Sputnik Gateway,” explains LaDuke. “Sputnik Gateways share bandwidth that they access from a wired, broadband connection. The bandwidth sharing works very much the same as it does with an ordinary 802.11 gateway with some key differences: First, Sputnik gateways will only share bandwidth with authenticated Sputnik subscribers – the gateway checks your username and password with our authentication server at ssl.sputnik.com. Second, Sputnik Gateways are intelligent about the way they share bandwidth. They always give gateway owners priority bandwidth access – in most cases they should not even notice that their bandwidth is being shared. Also, we can change the access priority of any gateway user based on their status. This will be required in corporate environments that enforce policy – and in the future, if we create tiered pricing for priority access.”

And this is where the crucial difference lies, Sputnik, unlike some of the extremely idealistic freenet groups, is happy to do business with businesses and actually wants to make money off this stuff. LaDuke and his cohorts are currently thinking about the possibility of charging subscribers to the Sputnik network.

This is probably the hole in Sputnik’s re-entry shield. The network is a network in name only. Users can only connect when they are in range of a Sputnik gateway. “The range depends on the antenna… With very modest configurations we can get four city blocks, line-of-site,” says Tyde. Sputnik claims to have some coverage in major cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Without more coverage, however, Sputnik is unlikely to appeal to business “road warriors” who want to be sure they can connect anytime, anyplace.

To be fair, coverage is a problem for any wireless ISP (WISP). Most current business-oriented WISPs, such as Wayport Inc., tend to concentrate on places where they know business people will congregate, like airport lounges or hotel suites. The Sputnik network is a much more ambitious proposition, which, if it took off, could unwire whole neighborhoods, rather than just removing the need to plug into a data port on a business trip.

Sputnik is a privately held company that was formed last spring. LaDuke and the executives come from the open-source software company Linuxcare Inc. It's unclear how the company has escaped a trademark battle with the original Sputnik satellite operator. Perhaps the latter has been distracted by its own corporate reorganization.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
http://www.unstrung.com
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