Controversy over Chinese WLAN standard deepens

IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

Licensing requirements at the heart of a Chinese standard for wireless LANs (WLANs) threaten to disrupt the ability of networking equipment vendors to do business in China, according to a U.S. technology trade group.

The requirement deepens a controversy over the recently implemented Chinese WLAN standard that could undermine efforts to create a global standard for wireless networks.

The Chinese WLAN standard, called GB15629.11-2003, is very similar to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.'s (IEEE's) 802.11 standard, commonly known as Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi, but it uses a different security protocol, called WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI).

The Chinese standard for WLANs was approved by the Standardization Administration of China (SAC) in May and came into effect on Dec. 1, although a transition period has been granted that extends the compliance deadline for some WLAN products until June 1, 2004.

Equipment vendors that want to sell WLAN gear in China are required to offer products based on the Chinese standard.

To conform to this standard, foreign equipment vendors must license WAPI through a manufacturing agreement with one of 11 Chinese companies designated by the Chinese government, including Legend Group Ltd. and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., according to Anne Stevenson-Yang, managing director of the U.S. Information Technology Office (USITO) in Beijing.

The Chinese companies -- many of which compete against foreign equipment vendors -- are not under any obligation to license WAPI to foreign companies, who could find themselves locked out of China's WLAN market if they cannot reach an agreement with a local partner, Stevenson-Yang said.

"It's very threatening to foreign vendors," she said.

In addition to market access, the licensing move raises other issues. Chinese companies that license WAPI may demand detailed access to foreign companies' products and technologies, raising concerns about the protection of intellectual property rights, Stevenson-Yang said.

A Legend spokeswoman in Hong Kong declined to comment, saying the company had not been informed of the issue.

Seen as a whole, the implementation of the Chinese WLAN standard and the licensing requirements have fundamentally changed a market that had previously been open to foreign equipment vendors by creating a new barrier to trade, Stevenson-Yang said.

"Now it appears that the market is not open," she said, noting that USITO continues to discuss the standards issue with Chinese authorities.

Concerns related to WAPI have also been raised by IEEE, which is worried that the implementation of the Chinese WLAN standard will undermine standardization efforts and split the global market for wireless networking products in two: one based on the Chinese standard and one based on 802.11.

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