After three years of Wi-Fi, hurdles remain

IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

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.

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