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Apple Ups the AirPort Ante

About two years after making wireless networking affordable for home and small business use, Apple has introduced new versions of its AirPort wireless base station, card, and software. The new AirPort adds 128-bit encryption, support for America Online (AOL), a built-in firewall, and a second Ethernet port on the base station, as well as expanding access to up to 50 users per base station. The products still cost $300 for the base station and $100 for the card for each computer.



From the networking standpoint, the new AirPort’s second Ethernet port enables the base station to share its Internet connection with multiple computers on a wired network, keeping the wired network separate and thus more secure. This LAN port is a 10/100Base-T port matching those on most of Apple’s computers, allowing for high-speed networking. The other network port (WAN) remains a 10Base-T port, offering up to 10 Mbps for a DSL or cable connection.

Security-wise, Apple has improved encryption to take advantage of the full 128-bit password capability of the 802.11b wireless networking specification. (However, see "Wireless Fishbowls" in TidBITS-592 for details on recent major security problems with wireless networking. Although 128-bit passwords support longer encryption keys, the underlying WEP encryption system can be compromised easily by determined attackers.) Using 128-bit encryption will require the latest AirPort card in users’ computers, or a third-party card with 128-bit capability. The older 64-bit encryption method is still supported for older cards.


The new AirPort features basic firewall protection, preventing unauthorized external users from accessing network resources on your local network. Users can selectively enable inbound port mapping, which permits external access to specific services (like a Web server) on AirPort-connected machines. The new base stations offer RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) support for central user access management of multiple devices, so schools and businesses can set up a central user list and apply it to more than one base station, just as they do with dialup modem pools and the like. The AirPort client software now supports Cisco LEAP (Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol) for authentication with Cisco access points.


Perhaps most significant, AOL users will now be able to connect wirelessly via the AirPort’s built-in modem to their accounts and access the Internet, but Apple says sharing the connection among multiple simultaneous users will require multiple AOL accounts. The company says the AOL compatibility feature supports only the U.S. version of AOL 5.0. No other wireless access point is compatible with AOL at this point, giving Apple an advantage over other wireless access points that tend to be cheaper and more full-featured.


The AirPort 2.0 software, released at the same time, supports all old AirPort base stations and cards. The software adds AOL compatibility to old base stations, and upgrades old cards to 128-bit encryption. (Old base stations will still be able to do only 40-bit encryption.) The latest software is available for download by existing AirPort owners via Apple’s Software Update mechanism. Some users have reported trouble when letting Software Update install both AirPort 2.0 and the update to Mac OS X 10.1.1, also released last week, so be sure to upgrade Mac OS X 10.1.1. first, then take off with the new AirPort software.

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