After three years of Wi-Fi, hurdles remain

The widespread adoption of the wireless internet will change the way PCs, handhelds and websites are sold and will alter how...

The widespread adoption of the wireless internet will change the way PCs, handhelds and websites are sold and will alter how computer users live, work and play, if the hype is to be believed.

That hype persists despite the more general gloom in IT these days, with suppliers offering a future vision of "hot spots" everywhere so that home computer users move unencumbered from room to room while mobile workers keep plugging away from airports, restaurants and, according to Intel's latest marketing blitz, football stadiums and swimming pools.

But members of the Wi-Fi Alliance acknowledge that obstacles must be cleared before wireless networking becomes part of the mainstream corporation's IT budget, or part of a consumer's monthly communications bill. The alliance is a non-profit consortium of suppliers involved in the wireless market.

Lack of security means that wireless networks can expose sensitive corporate information to anyone with money to spend on sniffer products and who has a decent grasp of networking. Several different standards are causing confusion, and not all products work with all standards. Searching for a hot spot, or a place to connect to the internet outside of a home or corporate network, can be a frustrating experience.

As of this week, the Wi-Fi Alliance has been certifying products for various wireless internet standards under development over the past three years by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), resulting in more than 700 products that have earned the group's stamp of approval. Among other things, the IEEE develops standards for a range of technical areas, including telecommunications, computer engineering, consumer electronics, electric power and aerospace.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is looking to improve the security of the technology this year with the certification of products bearing a new standard, and will undertake a marketing campaign bringing Wi-Fi access providers together under the Wi-Fi Zone to raise the public's awareness of hot spots, said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance board of directors and strategic marketing manager for wireless networking products at Intersil.

Wi-Fi, short for Wireless Fidelity, used to refer just to the 802.11b standard, but the alliance now uses it to refer to the broader spectrum of Wlan (wireless Lan) standards, including 802.11a and the emerging 802.11g.

The most commonly used 802.11b standard works on the 2.4GHz frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum and allows users to transmit data at speeds up to 11Mbps (bits per second). But a vast number of wireless products, such as cordless phones and garage door openers, use the 2.4GHz frequency and can cause disruptions in service.

The 802.11a standard works on the 5GHz frequency, which is less cluttered and allows data transfer rates up to 54Mbps, but has a shorter effective range than 802.11b at about 15m to 22.5m. Also, 802.11a products are not compatible with 802.11b products because of differing operating frequencies, and 802.11a hot spots are not easily found.

The IEEE is preparing the final specification for 802.11g, which combines the use of the 2.4GHz frequency with the faster download speeds offered by 802.11a. Products are already available based on the draft standard, and any changes made during the final process between now and the middle of this year will require just a software update, according to suppliers and the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Many users and analysts are unsure that 802.11g products already available will be compatible across the board, because of the slight changes. There could be some problems across multiple chipset suppliers with compatibility, said Frank Ferro, a member of board of directors at the Wi-Fi Alliance and marketing director for Agere Systems.

Additionally, some consumers might not realise they need to download updated drivers to gain full interoperability, although the Wi-Fi Alliance will do what it can to educate consumers, Ferro added.

Future products are likely to include all of the 802.11 standards on a single wireless card or integrated wireless chip, Eaton said. The likes of Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Dell have already released several dualband notebooks have between them.

Security concerns have held back Wi-Fi adoption in the corporate world. Hackers and security consultants have demonstrated how easy it can be to crack the existing security technology, known as WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), used in most Wi-Fi connections. Using materials and software readily available, a hacker can wander around a city looking for unsecured Wlan access points or hot spots, also known as "drive-by Wi-Fi" or "war driving".

New standards

In an attempt to allay the security concerns of IT managers, the Wi-Fi Alliance will announce it has certified the first products with a new security technology known as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) on 29 April, Eaton said. WPA will provide a stopgap measure for wireless internet users until a new software standard from the IEEE is ratified.

The IEEE is seeking comment on 802.11i, which is a software standard that seeks to improve security features such as user authentication and key encryption in the various 802.11 wireless hardware standards.

"WPA provides a better layer of security than WEP. It thwarts all known attacks published in the public domain today, and will work with products on the market today," Eaton said.

Products certified for WPA will feature several technologies not found in WEP, including improved key management technology and TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol).

When the final version of 802.11i is ratified by the IEEE later this year, it will contain a security protocol known as CCMP (Counter with Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol). This will add an additional layer of security for the second version of WPA based on the completed standard, due out next year, Eaton said.

However, WPA will provide enough of a security boost to make it worthwhile for reluctant IT managers to start installing it now instead of waiting for the completed 802.11i standard, said Isaac Ro, senior analyst with Aberdeen Group.

"WEP is easily crackable, and WPA is a good step beyond," he said.

Users of existing Wi-Fi products will be able to upgrade to WPA through software updates, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance.

While security is probably the primary concern among IT managers considering Wi-Fi networks, Wi-Fi suppliers are also looking for ways to solve a problem dogging the rollout of commercial Wi-Fi hot spots: the integration and back-end billing of thousands of worldwide hot spot providers.

However, Wi-Fi proponents can learn something from the way mobile phone carriers have set up their back-end billing systems. One of the main hurdles behind a global Wi-Fi network involves the standardisation of a billing and payment system for Wi-Fi hot spot users and the providers of those services. Mobile phone carriers "have that licked", Eaton said.

Right now, the Wi-Fi Alliance has its hands full trying to certify the hardware products, and has done little to bring service providers together to discuss ways to handle the billing situation. "That's more of a business thing than a technology thing," he said.

Wi-Fi roaming

A number of companies, known as aggregators, are working to bring hot spot providers under an universal umbrella. Boingo Wireless and iPass are two of the leading companies attempting to provide mobile phone-like roaming ability to Wi-Fi users.

Some of the ideas under consideration for Wi-Fi billing include per day, per hour, and unlimited monthly connection fees. Right now, users are willing to pay a bit of a premium for hot spot access but, as pricing becomes more competitive, hot spot owners will need a larger share of the revenues they generate for the equipment companies and hot spot providers, said John Yunker, an analyst with Pyramid Research.

Right now, the owner of a venue with a hot spot receives about 20% of the revenue generated by Wi-Fi in their area, based on revenue sharing models. The rest goes to the equipment manufacturer and the hot spot provider, which is responsible for support and installation. "Current revenue share models value the network far greater than the location," Yunker said.

Larger venues, such as airports or convention centres, can make a great deal of money with only 20% of the revenue, but places such as coffee shops are the key to drive Wi-Fi growth, and hot spot providers and aggregators will need to cut them a bigger piece of the pie to encourage more venues to install hot spots, Yunker said.

Eventually, the aggregators and providers will have to figure out ways to share networks as the number of hot spots grows beyond the ability of one company to manage, Ro said. But the capital required to set up a Wi-Fi hot spot is far less than required for cellular operators, at about $100 for a wireless base station against around $1m for a mobile phone tower.

For now, the Wi-Fi Alliance will work with aggregators and hot spot providers to label hot spots with a Wi-Fi Zone sticker. Any service provider that uses equipment certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance will earn the right to display the Wi-Fi Zone logo. Users will be able to visit to locate hot spots in their home towns or travelling destinations, and can download an Excel spreadsheet to look up hot spots when not online.

The prospect of a fast internet connection anywhere, at any time, is still some distance from becoming reality for most PC and handheld users. But the Wi-Fi Alliance and numerous suppliers are working towards making the technology ubiquitous, and wireless technology will drive hardware sales if it becomes something users cannot live without.

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