Expect WLAN Based on 802.11 To Proliferate

By Seng Li Peng

August 19, 2002

The much-discussed weaknesses of WEP encryption in 802.11-based WLAN will hardly affect its adoption rates in Asia. Absolute security in any wireless network is impossible, says Dr. Daniel Tan of NTU.

It is not a question of whether or not we will move from a wired to a wireless environment. Rather, it is a question of "when and how", says Dr. Daniel Tan Tiong Hok, director, Center for Educational Development and Associate Professor, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) at the Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The benefits of wireless technologies are plentiful.

Dr. Tan gives an example: "I can now surf the Internet from the swimming pool, do my homework in the canteen or manage my email in a coffee shop where 'hotspots' are available. A wireless environment also helps do away with ugly wiring and conduits."

Wireless technology also helps eliminate the labor costs associated with cabling. In some situations where cabling is a problem, wireless technologies will serve as a good alternative.

Recognizing that there will be an inevitable rising demand for wireless solutions globally, it became obvious that something has to be done; first to solve interoperability issues if all parties involved, from sellers of wireless solutions to users, want to benefit.

"The wise thing to do was to have a standard that would be vendor-independent and one that benefit the consumer," Dr. Tan comments.

Among the bodies that sprung up, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) who came up with the 802.11 family of specifications for wireless local area networks (WLANs) is by far the most prominent and successful today in the commercial field in Asia and the US despite struggles in its early days.

802.11 Family Products
Stated in www.whatis.com, IEEE's family suite of products comprise 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b (also referred as Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi), and 802.11g. All four use the Ethernet protocol and CSMA/CA (carrier sense multiple access with collision avoidance) for path sharing.

The 802.11a specification applies to wireless ATM systems and is used in access hubs and operates at radio frequencies between 5 GHz and 6 GHz. It is capable of data speeds as high as 54 Mbps, but most commonly, communications takes place at 6 Mbps, 12 Mbps, or 24 Mbps.

The 802.11b standard, on the other hand, is backward compatible with 802.11 while 802.11g is the most recent product to be included, offering wireless transmission over relatively short distances at up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps) compared with the 11 Mbps of the 802.11b standard. Like 802.11b, 802.11g operates in the 2.4 GHz range and is thus compatible with it.

According to Dr. Tan, these four specifications are developed to co-exist with one another rather than to replace each other. He says: "Companies will choose what they need, based on their operational requirements."

Security Concern
One topic that never fails to be discussed when it comes to WLAN based on 802.11 standard is the weaknesses of the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption method within it.

Despite the WEP, it is still possible for a hacker to eavesdrop and listen in, and perhaps even to interfere with the transmission session maliciously, says Dr. Tan.

"This is not to say that the specifications in the standards were flawed. Often, it is with increasing usage and/or knowledge that such vulnerabilities become apparent."

One approach to manage these threats is to put in place proper policies and practices.

"Another is to enhance a standard to correct the vulnerabilities. But where patches are not available, the use of virtual private network (VPN) can help combat security threats," Dr. Tan explains.

Unfortunately, the use VPN can lower the performance of 802.11 WLAN.

Will people stop using 802.11 because of these reasons? The answer is a clear "No". Says Dr. Tan: "For applications in which security and authentication are not critical issues, I suppose it would be tolerable." And to be realistic, "there is no such thing as absolute security unless it is a network that does not connect," he adds.

"As much as the IEEE committee takes a very serious view on security threats, its primary role is to look into operational specifications for interoperability in a mixed vendor, vendor-agnostic and vendor-independent environment ... some manufacturers have gone one step further by building in enhancements in their products. For example, there are server network cards that have multiple RJ45 ports, to allow hot stand-bys, which is a feature outside the 802.11 specifications."

While the debate on the security issues pertaining to WLAN based on 802.11 standard continues, business operators in Asia and the US including airports, hotels, even cafes and shopping malls (go to: http://asia.internet.com/asia-news/article/0,3916,161_1446971,00.html) as well as campuses such as NTU, have wasted no time in installing 'hotspots' based on such networks for road warriors and students respectively. So far, users seemed pretty satisfied with the results.

As Bill Gates puts it: "If any one technology has emerged in the past few years that will be explosive in its impact, it's 802.11". And research company, Dell' Oro Group, has projected that revenues from the worldwide market for all products based on the 802.11 standard will grow to US$3.1 billion in 2006 from US$1.2 billion in 2001.

Catch Dr. Tan and speakers from prominent companies such as Frost & Sullivan, Avaya and BDA at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, to be held on October 2 and 3 at The Pan Pacific Hotel, Singapore. The speakers will address the critical issues surrounding WLAN.

Go to www.intmediaevents.com/80211/singapore02/index.html for more details.

Originally published on .

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