Clouds hang low over Chinese WLAN standard

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

China's implementation of a national standard for wireless LANs (WLANs) is bad news for Chinese end users and could signal the start of a renewed push to exert greater government control over encryption technology in the world's most populous country, according to U.S. industry groups.

The Chinese WLAN standard, 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 developed locally, called WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI).

The Standardization Administration of China (SAC) approved the standard on May 12 and it came into effect on Dec. 1. While vendors that want to sell WLAN gear in China are now required to conform to this standard, the SAC has granted a transition period that extends the compliance deadline for certain products until June 1.

China's adoption of a different standard could hurt Chinese users as well as the global WLAN industry, said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, an organization that certifies and promotes 802.11 wireless LAN technology.

"It's going to put those products at a pretty substantial cost disadvantage," Eaton said. "The technical requirements for WAPI, from a processing standpoint, are much higher."

The Chinese specification will probably require more memory as well and will make it harder to integrate into handheld devices such as phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants), Eaton said. The impact on WLAN hardware is likely to have a ripple effect on other products that incorporate wireless networking capabilities, such as notebook PCs, he added.

In addition, a separate standard could make the networking gear bought by Chinese customers unusable in other countries, Eaton added.

IEEE shares Eaton's concerns. In a Nov. 23 letter to SAC Chairman Li Zhonghai and Wang Xudong, China's minister of information industry, Paul Nikolich, the chairman of the IEEE 802 Local and Metropolitan Area Network Standards Committee, wrote: "We believe that mandatory implementation of the WAPI protocols would unnecessarily fracture the world market for WLAN products."

Complicating the matter further, foreign vendors that want to produce products that comply with the Chinese WLAN standard must sign coproduction agreements with one of 11 local companies designated by the Chinese government, which justified the move by citing national security concerns, according to a briefing document prepared by the U.S. Information Technology Office (USITO), an industry group that represents a broad range of technology companies.

No rules have been set to govern how these coproduction arrangements must be handled, it said.

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