Wireless vendor Proxim has finally entered the wireless switch market. A new generation of its Orinoco access points will be sold on their voice integration abilities, backed by a switch that manages wireless access points.

However, the switch won't be available till June, and - because Proxim wants to include a hand-off to GSM networks - it will need extra equipment from Proxim's partners Motorola and Avaya to do all the company promises.

"Wireless LANs have been justifying themselves for the last couple of years," said Anthony Fulgoni, UK & Ireland regional sales manager for Proxim. "We are trying to push things on a bit by adding another layer to it."

When the whole package is complete, the new AP-4000 access points will communicate to a switch that Proxim will launch in June. This will handle subnet roaming, rogue detection and other security functions. The voice integration will be provided by links to Avaya IP PBXs, a forthcoming Motorola product called Mobility Manager and proposed dual-band Motorola handsets that will roam from GSM to Wi-Fi networks.

"It's a jigsaw puzzle at the moment," said Fulgoni. "When these three pieces come together we have true IP telephony, roaming between Wi-Fi and GSM with one handset. It includes load balancing and roaming across subnets, going from building to building in a campus."

This sounds like a package for mobile operators to sell to IT departments, allowing the telco to keep its involvement in wireless calls within the office. The alternative approach, where the IT manager uses voice convergence to cut the mobile operator out, has been suggested by Nortel and others.

However, Proxim's actual marketing plans for the switches are still emerging. "Are we selling to users or providers? It could go either way," said Fulgoni. "There is no one model that will fit everybody. This approach will open doors but it could cause friction."

In the meantime, he expects IT managers to snap up the AP-4000 (which costs $900 in the US) on its merits and as a way to be "voice-ready". It is, he says, the first access point to have all three flavours (802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g) on a single-board system. It uses two radios, using Atheros chipsets, not TI's proposed single radio solution. As a result, it can give users a high aggregate data rate, or let them use the 802.11a channel to create a wireless mesh if it is hard to connect the APs by Ethernet.

The access points also include SNMPv3 (which encrypts management data to prevent the use of SNMP to break Wi-Fi security, Secure-HTTP, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Wi-Fi Protected Access. The AES encryption standard will be available as a software upgrade in summer when it is finalised, bringing the AP up to the full 802.11i security spec. With 32MB of RAM, it should be able to handle other software upgrades, said Fulgoni.

The product will broadcast at 100mW, instead of using 50mW and relying on sensitive antennae, as previous Proxim products have done, said Fulgoni. Because the products still have that sensitivity this will improve the range, he explained.

"They've done a very good job at providing secure management with SSL, (Secure Shell) and SNMPv3," says Philippe Hanset, senior network engineer for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

The campus has 1,300 Orinoco AP-2000 802.11b access points. Hanset plans to phase in the AP-4000 for two reasons: to use 802.11g connections (54M bits/sec compared to 11M bits/sec for 11b in the same 2.4GHz band); and to use the extra channels available in 802.11a, where the extra capacity is needed for densely packed users.

Another innovation in the AP-4000 is that it can be configured to support several Service Set Identifiers, or network names. These names can be mapped to virtual LANs on the wired network. The result, Hanset says, is that administrators can segregate users on specialised networks.

Proxim's wireless LAN switch will be available first in a 16-port model, with eight and 24-port versions later this year. The switch will support an early, but unofficial, version of the 802.11e quality-of-service standard, which is designed to ensure high-quality voice and streaming media over WLANs.

Motorola, another Proxim partner, says it will release a compact handset this year that has a cellular interface and a WLAN card. That will serve to arbitrate a voice or data handoff between a cellular network and an enterprise WLAN or hot spot.

Fulgoni denies that Proxim is a late-comer to the wireless switch market, having delivered most of the functions of current wireless switches (centralised control and security) in its Harmony range in 1990, which included access points and a management module. However, Harmony was designed to work with Proxim's own range of Wi-Fi (and pre-Wi-Fi) wireless LAN equipment, which was sidelined by the Agere Orinoco range which Proxim purchased in 1992.

"We were too early," said Fulgoni. "There wasn't enough demand for mobility. Rather than retool Harmony, we want to have a product that brings us forward."

Proxim went with partners to get all the skills required, said Fulgoni. "We couldn't have done this by ourselves," he said. "Nor could Avaya or Motorola."

John Cox, Network World, contributed to this report.