Microsoft plans Wi-Fi enhancements for Windows

Users of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP operating system will soon be able to take advantage of a new software enhancement that the U.S. software company claims will offer faster, easier and more secure access to broadband wireless networks.

With its new Wireless Provisioning Services (WPS) technology, Microsoft aims at helping not only business and private users connect to Wi-Fi hotspots more easily and securely, but also telecommunication operators provision and manage these networks more simply and cost-efficiently, Microsoft said Sunday in a statement released at the Telecom World 2003 conference and exhibition in Geneva. The event is organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an arm of the United Nations (UN).

WPS technology consists of two components: server software used by telecommunication service providers in the backend; and client server installed on notebooks or other mobile devices, according to Shai Guday, group program manager of wireless and mobility at Microsoft.

On the server side, the technology will be included in the first service pack for Windows Server 2003, expected in the first quarter of 2004, he said. On the client side, it will be available as a downloadable upgrade for both Windows XP Professional and Home, as early as the fourth quarter, he said.

"We already have an internal beta version of Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 available, so operators can begin testing this right away," Guday said. "The same applies for the client side."

The WPS enhancements in both Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP software products will be free to licensed users, he said.

In Geneva, Swisscom Mobile Ltd. and T-Mobile International AG & Co. KG will demonstrate the new Windows-powered Wi-Fi technology, according to Guday. Both operators have already agreed to deploy it in their wireless networks in Europe and, in the case of T-Mobile, in the U.S. as well, according to the statement.

Microsoft points to its own experience operating more than 4,000 access points at its campus in Redmond, Washington, as well as other sites around the world, used by more than 40,000 employees, according to Guday. To secure these networks, the company has relied heavily on the 802.1x standard, which essentially establishes a series of rotating security keys for encrypting packets, he said. This standard is at the heart of WPS.

The wireless enhancement builds upon other security features as well, such as Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol (PEAP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). The Internet Authentication Service (IAS), which Microsoft calls the RADIUS server, is included in Windows Server 2003.

In addition to security, WPS allows service providers to send Wi-Fi provisioning and configuration information directly to notebook computers or mobile devices. This service spares users the hassle of making connection adjustments, which often are difficult and time-consuming. As soon as users log on, for instance, the network recognizes them, automatically creates a session and bills them.

The wireless configuration service in Windows XP will automatically choose the correct network belonging to the Wi-Fi service provider, based on provisioning information supplied by the provider.

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