Wi-Fi Alliance Plans for the Future

By Eric Griffith

April 07, 2005

The promoter and tester of Wi-Fi interoperability has seen the writing on the wall, and is making plans to stay relevant as 802.11 technologies move beyond just PCs.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry consortium that acts as promoter and tester of interoperability between wireless LAN equipment makers, has seen the writing on the wall. Vendors have not been touting the Wi-Fi Certified stamp of approval as they once were—a fact that has not escaped notice. So the group is making plans to stay relevant as 802.11 technologies move beyond just PCs.

In a conversation last week with Frank Hanzlik, the managing director of the Alliance, he said that the almost 2,000 products the group has tested in the last five years are exciting, but it may only be the start as Wi-Fi migrates into phones and consumer electronics.

He feels that electronics will be the key growth area, especially after seeing so many products with Wi-Fi at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last January. "Just walking around on the floor, it was hard not to bump into Wi-Fi," he said.

Cellular convergence is the other growth area, which comes as no surprise to anyone following the industry buzz of the last few months. Talking about the CTIA Wireless 2005 show in New Orleans in March, Hanzlik said, "We were happy to see just about all the handset folks had at least one product with Wi-Fi, either formally at their booth or behind the scenes."

However, he thinks it will still take some time for the market to develop. He cites a Senza Fili Consulting forecast that pegs North America's use of Wi-Fi/Cellular Convergence (WCC) at only a few million users in the next two years, but 30 million users by the year 2010, in a segment worth $1.6 billion in just the United States. He calls the forecast "conservative."

He's not worried about anything like cellular or 3G becoming a competitor to Wi-Fi, calling the technologies complementary. "At a panel at CTIA, that was a key theme the audience was resonating with," he said. "We're moving in the right direction."

WCC means using voice traffic over Wi-Fi networks (VoWi-Fi, occasionally known as VoFi), which doesn't seem much of a stretch to Hanzlik, considering the number of Wi-Fi networks that already exist. Adding voice to them is a given, though maybe not so much at home, where he said services like Vonage already have attractive pricing -- it's going to take a while for Wi-Fi phone handsets to get affordable enough for home use, though he said "there is interest in using VoWi-Fi to replace cordless phones."

The Alliance has its own internal WCC task group that is "chartered to support [the] cellular industry's unique certification requirements," by taking the Alliance's PC-centric certification and "morphing it into something that works for devices that have different operating system requirements, performance requirements, that benefit from measured radio frequency specifications," Hanzlik said. While he would not share details, he said some of their work has been done in collaboration with other industry trade associations, including the CTIA.

"Convergence is good, and it's beyond the scope of any one company or organization. We have to collaborate," said Hanzlik.

He also shared the Wi-Fi Alliance's "interoperability certification roadmap" for the future of specification testing. Right now, first quarter of 2005, the Alliance is still chugging along with testing for 802.11a and 11b/g interoperability, their main reason for being.

Along with that is Wi-Fi Multimedia (WMM) quality of service (QoS) —a spec based on a subset of what will be in the 802.11e spec that may be final this year. Hanzlik doesn't think WMM will become mandatory, as "there is a class of products with QoS, and others that won't need it." He said requiring it of all vendors at this point would be insensitive to the cost of certification and development for the vendors, but believes that could change in the future.

Security-wise, the alliance is also testing for Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA , based on a subset of 802.11i), which is now mandatory in all tested products. WPA2 (for full 802.11i) is also being certified, and will be mandatory as of April 2006.

Hanzlik said the usual cycle to make a standard mandatory for certification is around 18 months. The Alliance began WPA2 testing in September 2004.

In the second quarter of this year, the Alliance is planning to start testing for 802.11h (meant to make 5GHz 802.11a work with less interference with systems like radar, especially overseas) and 802.11d (lets 802.11b be used in countries where 11b wouldn't otherwise be allowed). Also to be security tested: Extensible Authentication Protocols (EAP) used in 802.1X/RADIUS authentication on corporate networks, starting with the EAP-TLS type. Four others will be added over the ensuing months.

Third quarter of 2005: look for the group's first WCC tests to debut.

At the end of 2005, the Alliance will kick into high gear with testing for multimedia, including the scheduled access side of WMM. The current WMM handles the prioritized access approach—both will be present in 802.11e. Hanzlik said plans for a consumer electronics framework test at this same time is already underway, but will require changes in the test environment to see what will work. He suggests that the tools used by the certification labs, including Ixia's IxChariot, may need to make some modifications.

Next year will not only bring testing for VoWi-Fi, but also testing for public access Wi-Fi. Hanzlik said the Alliance's "public access task group has been around for some time. They're in the process of working with the WCC group -- there's overlap in initiatives." This will apparently also take on more of a security testing aspect, differing from the Alliance's Wi-Fi ZONE program for listing public access hotspots that simply get a stamp of approval for using Wi-Fi Certified products.

The Alliance is also planning to push what it calls "simple configuration" with members, trying to make home WLANs easier to set up, maybe even with just a push of a button to get the highest level of security (similar to Broadcom's SecureEasySetup or Buffalo Technology's AOSS). "We've got a lot of participation here," said Hanzlik, "and we are right now hoping to have a certification program for the first half of 2006."

Beyond even Wi-Fi, the Alliance is also looking to work with groups like the WiMax Forum, its counterpart in the 802.16 world. Hanzlik said that with some of the biggest proponents of Wi-Fi also doing WiMax, "we have a good formal working relationship with WiMax Forum to talk positioning issues and messaging." The two groups may even use some of the same labs for certification testing, and may go the extra step to make sure they really will be complementary. Same for 802.15.4, also known as ultrawideband. Hanzlik said that UWB is "by no means local area networking," and is again more complementary than competitive.

Part of the goal, he concluded, is "helping people understand there's no wireless technology that does it all."

Originally published on .

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