A trio of wireless LAN vendors have put together a loose coalition of complementary products that it claims has enough RF smarts to see off competition from Wi-Fi specialists, at the same time as undercutting Cisco's pricey offering.

The product mix, available now, makes use of low-priced access points from Netgear, with a management and security gateway from Bluesocket. The heart of the proposition is Propagate Networks' AutoCell software that lets WLAN clients and access points automatically adjust radio signals, channels and other configurations to minimise interference and maximise bandwidth. AutoCell claims to provide these features on commodity access points, while specialist Wi-Fi companies such as Airespace say they can only be provided by a combination of specialist switches and proprietary access points.

In effect, the trio is trying to create a centralised WLAN infrastructure without forcing customers to deploy an array of WLAN switches, while undercutting the premium prices charged by the enterprise access point leader, Cisco.

Netgear and Bluesocket have licensed Propagate's AutoCell software, which will run on their hardware, says Propagate founder Paul Callahan. Bluesocket will write to Propagate's AutoCell API, allowing Bluesocket management applications to issue directives to AutoCell, such as "don't let the access point associate with clients connecting below 1Mbit/s." Devices managed by AutoCell then negotiate among themselves, applying the directives in setting up the WLAN's radio environment.

In Bluesocket's case, AutoCell adds RF intelligence which the product has been criticised for lacking, making it more comparable to specialist Wi-Fi switches such as those from Trapeze, Airespace and Aruba. Other companies using AutoCell to gain RF intelligence include Chantry and Bluesocket's rival ReefEdge, which this week announced a Wi-Fi switch with RF management.

Netgear will also be selling access points to ReefEdge and Chantry, according to sources. Although the company will keep its traditional focus on small and midsize companies, at least some larger organisations will accept Netgear access points when backed by AutoCell and Bluesocket, ReefEdge or Chantry. Netgear Chairman Patrick Lo has said that the company's wireless designs are focused on sites with up to 250 users.

Netgear has been aggressive in rolling out 802.11g products that boast roughly between four and five times the throughput of 11b products while using the same 2.4 GHz radio band. The company has also quickly certified its WLAN gear to support the Wi-Fi Protected Access specification.

Coupling Netgear's ProSafe line with centralised management and security from Bluesocket might make network executives more willing to embrace a less costly alternative to Cisco, Proxim and Symbol, which together hold the lion's share of the enterprise access point market. Bluesocket's gateways can collect a large group of access points and let administrators secure, configure, and manage them.

Propagate's AutoCell software introduces a range of radio frequency configuration and control features that have been missing from the gateway vendors. By embedding the software in access points and client adapter cards, these radios can sense each other's presence, and adjust various radio settings to maintain strong, clear signals.

At Propagate's corporate headquarters in Acton Massachussetts, the founders deployed a Netgear 802.11a access point, running AutoCell, in each office cubicle, within a few feet of each other. The software lets each access point sidestep its neighbours, avoiding interference and giving each laptop user the maximum available throughput, roughly 20M bit/s.

AutoCell promises to make WLAN radio management a commodity, says Bluesocket President and CEO Eric Janszen. "We need to see RF (radio frequency) management, security, access point control - all these things become standardised," he said. "We think the market will demand an agnostic relationship between (wireless) clients and access points."

Companies like Bluesocket, he predicts, will provide the specialised management, security, and mobility features (as shown in a recent product announcement) that enterprise WLANs will need to support data, voice, streaming media applications.

"AutoCell is an alternative to proprietary, centrally-controlled RF management products, such as those under development by wireless switch vendors and incumbent networking equipment vendors, that depend on proprietary APs and proprietary central control technology," said Jantzen. "AutoCell software is designed to be built into standard next generation APs and controllable by our wireless gateways and other vendors' gateways and switches via a standard API. We expect AutoCell RF management technology will be widely adopted by AP manufacturers and become a commodity feature for WLANs."

ReefEdge and Chantry "will use Netgear's APs with Propagate's AutoCell to get out of the proprietary AP business as Bluesocket did in 2001," he predicted.