With IT managers still hesitating to implement Wi-Fi networks, a new category of problem is emerging: the soft access point. Any PC with a Wi-Fi card can run software that turns it into an access point, potentially opening up corporate networks. This software is emerging from all sides: one product is available as a $30 download, one launched this week at the Wi-Fi Planet show in San Jose, and Intel AND Microsoft appear to be planning to bundle another with next generation products.

PCTEL’s Segue Soft Access Module (SAM), launched at Wi-Fi Planet – and announced back in May – is not for sale to end users. PCTEL wants hardware vendors to bundle it with Wi-Fi cards – though no definite partners have yet been announced. It’s intended to make really low cost networks, so anyone with a broadband connection can share it – and potentially any PC on a corporate LAN could become a hard-to-detect rogue access point.

"Segue SAM takes the complexity out of installing a Wi-Fi network," said Marty Singer, PCTel's chairman and CEO. "Traditional Wi-Fi networks require standalone access points and routers. Segue SAM software replaces those access points and routers, automatically scans the user's PC settings, and configures itself within seconds.”

Vendors may well go with this, since Wi-Fi cards are commodities and access points are already sold on the strength of additional features such as routers and gateways.

Other products, such as Cirond’s WINC, automate the ability Wi-Fi cards already have to set up ad hoc networks, while a full freeware access point is available in software for Linux users, known as Host AP.

But the real problem will come late in 2004, as both Intel and Microsoft are believed to be building soft access points into next generation products.

It has been reported that Intel’s P4 desktop chipset codenamed “Grantsdale” will include base station software. The chipset is due to ship in the second half of 2004, and will be in many new desktop PCs by the end of the year. If nothing else, it gives the powerful processor something else to do, soaking up otherwise unused cycles.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been talking about “Soft Wi-Fi”, a scheme to handle raw Wi-Fi data streams in future versions of Windows, exposing access point functions within Windows.

Cheap access points have long been seen as a threat to corporate networks, but they are on the verge of becoming completely free – and ubiquitous.