Farpoint Group –
Why does it seem as though there are so many organizations that are Wi-this and Wi-that? Because there are - and they now play an important if not critical role in the development and marketing of many new wireless technologies. And while they all begin with "Wi", each has a distinct focus and set of objectives, which may eventually involve conflict with one another. This week, we look at the most important of these associations, and explore what they're trying to do.
By now we've all heard of Wi-Fi. At one point Wi-Fi was a trademark, but it has fallen into common use as a general term describing wireless LANs (WLANs). Wi-Fi, as you might guess, is short for "Wireless fidelity", a rather clever marketing slogan originated by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), formed by a number of leading WLAN vendors in 1999. The original mission of WECA was simple - provide interoperability testing for 802.11b-based products of different manufacturers.
The IEEE 802.11 standard didn't, still doesn't, and likely never will include either compliance to the standard, or compatibility testing and verification (among given implementations of products based on the standard). The founders of WECA reasoned that customers would be more inclined to take a chance on what was then a new and unproven technology if an independent authority would certify interoperability - a very good assumption. This was all of five years ago, mind you - quite remarkable considering that everyone seems to have a wireless LAN now.
WECA, now the Wi-Fi Alliance, has been a major factor in the adoption of WLANs, especially in the residence (i.e., using products available through retail channels sold to relatively network-unsophisticated customers). A big challenge in recent years has been the rapid evolution of 802.11 standards to include new physical layers (.11a, .11g, and in 2005, .11n), as well as new multimedia (.11e) and security (.11i) features.
Given the broad range of potential incompatibilities, based on the breadth of the standard, optional features in the standard itself, "standards plus" (extended) implementations from vendors, and differing implementations of exactly what the standard says, resulting in unintentionally-incompatible implementations, the Wi-Fi Alliance still has its work cut out for it.
They've also been busy providing an interim (and maybe permanent) solution to the well-publicized security problems inherent in 802.11's Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) security implementation - the equally well-publicized Wireless Protected Access (WPA) specification now widely available in many WLAN products. They're also working on interoperability and promotional activities regarding public access wireless LANs (known as the "Wi-Fi Zone"), and in providing a bridge to the multimedia capabilities in 802.11e. Again, this is an example of what a highly-focused and disciplined group of industry players can do when they focus on the customer and at least temporarily ignore the fact that they are otherwise very serious competitors.
The Wi-Fi Alliance is sometimes confused with the Wireless LAN Alliance (WLANA), which was a competing trade association in the WLAN space. WLANA still exists, but seems to be in a dormant state. You can still find interesting educational materials on their site, but much of it hasn't been updated in some time.
Perhaps taking a page from the Wi-Fi book, the WiMAX Forum was formed to popularize products based on the IEEE 802.16 Wireless MAN (Metropolitan area standard) standard. WMANs have much longer range than WLANs, as much as several kilometers and more, as opposed to the nominal 100 meters of WLANs. As is the case with Wi-Fi, the WiMAX folks are looking to popularize the use of WMANs for Internet access, network bridges, and other applications. Most of the Forum's current interest is in promoting the use of .16-based products in the 2.4, 2.5, 3.5, and 5 GHz. bands