After three years of Wi-Fi, hurdles remain

IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

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.

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