The widespread adoption of the wireless Internet will change the way PCs, handhelds and Web sites are sold and will alter how computer users live, work and play, if the hype is to be believed.
That hype persists amid the lack of much else to cheer about in IT these days, with vendors 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 Corp.'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 nonprofit consortium of vendors involved in the wireless market.
Lack of security means that wireless networks can expose sensitive corporate information to anyone with a few dollars 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 Inc. (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 Milpitas, California-based Intersil Corp., in an interview.
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 11M bps (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 54M bps, but has a shorter effective range than 802.11b at about 15 meters to 22.5 meters. Also, 802.11a products are not compatible with 802.11b products, due to the different 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 vendors and the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Many users and analysts aren't sure that currently available 802.11g products will be compatible across the board, due to the slight changes. There could be some problems across multiple chipset vendors with compatibility, said Frank Ferro, a member of board of directors at the Wi-Fi Alliance and marketing director for Agere Systems Inc. in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Also, some consumers might not realize they need to download updated drivers in order to gain full interoperability, although the Wi-Fi Alliance will do what it can to educate consumers, he said.
Future products will likely include all of the 802.11 standards on a single wireless card or integrated wireless chip, Eaton said. Several dualband notebooks have already been released from vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Toshiba Corp. and Dell Computer Corp.
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 current 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."
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 April 29, Eaton said. WPA will provide a stopgap measure for wireless Internet users until a new software standard from the IEEE is ratified, he said.
The IEEE is currently 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 Inc. in Boston. "WEP is easily crackable, and WPA is a good step beyond," he said.
Users of current 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 vendors are also looking for ways to solve a problem dogging the roll out 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 cell phone carriers have set up their back-end billing systems. One of the main hurdles behind a global Wi-Fi network involves the standardization of a billing and payment system for Wi-Fi hot spot users and the providers of those services. Cell phone carriers "have that licked," Eaton said.
Cell phone service providers have encountered their own obstacles in bringing wireless data capabilities to cell phones, an effort known as 3G (third generation). Numerous factors, such as battles over spectrum allocation and the decline of the telecommunications industry over the past two years, have held back adoption of 3G. A version known as 2.5G is becoming widely used, but has less capabilities than what was expected for 3G.
Wi-Fi is designed as a LAN technology, while 3G is a WAN (wide area network) technology. Comparisons between the Wi-Fi and 3G are often drawn, however the two wireless Internet connection standards don't really compete against each other, but instead complement each other, Eaton said.
Right now, the Wi-Fi Alliance has its hands full trying to certify the hardware products, and hasn't done much work to bring service providers together to discuss ways to handle the billing situation, Eaton said. "That's more of a business thing than a technology thing," he said.
A number of companies, known as aggregators, are working to bring hot spot providers under an universal umbrella. Boingo Wireless Inc. and iPass Inc. are two of the leading companies attempting to provide cell 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 LLC in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a recent newsletter.
Right now, the owner of a venue with a hot spot receives about 20 percent of the revenue generated by Wi-Fi in their area, based on revenue sharing models, according to Yunker. 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," he wrote.
Larger venues such as airports or convention centers can make a great deal of money with only 20 percent of the revenue, but places like 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 US$100 for a wireless base station versus about $1 million for a cell phone tower, he said.
For now, the Wi-Fi Alliance plans to work with aggregators and hot spot providers to label hot spots with a Wi-Fi Zone moniker. 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 http://www.wi-fizone.org to locate hot spots in their hometowns or traveling destinations, and can download an Excel spreadsheet to look up hot spots when not online.
The idea is to have a universally recognized logo that anyone can see and know that wireless Internet service is available at a location, similar to the way a telephone logo identifies a phone booth or a stick figure differentiates between male and female restrooms, Ro said.
The prospect of a fast Internet connection anywhere, at any time, is still some distance from becoming reality for the vast majority of PC and handheld users. But the Wi-Fi Alliance and numerous vendors are working towards making the technology ubiquitous, and wireless technology will drive hardware sales if it becomes something users can't live without.