Silicon Valley Goes Wireless For 802.11

By Michael Singer

December 03, 2001

In the quest for wireless Internet dominance, the technology known as 802.11, or Wi-Fi, is quickly cementing its place as a wireless standard.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In the quest for wireless Internet dominance, the technology known as 802.11, or Wi-Fi, is quickly cementing its place as a wireless standard.

Which is why a host of wireless and networking companies descended on Santa Clara, California for the 802.11 Planet - Fall 2001 Conference & Expo.

The event, sponsored by INT Media Group (NASDAQ:INTM), the parent company of and this site, has brought together some of the best cutting edge strategies in the wireless LAN sector.

"WiFi has all the trappings of what I saw with the early forms of the Internet," says INT Media CEO Alan Meckler. "Everyone here is a pioneer in this technology and I'm excited about how 802.11 and this conference will evolve."

The show is attracting exhibitors and attendees from leading wireless companies and has also received official endorsement from the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA).

Composed of the world's leading technology companies, WECA is focused on promoting and certifying 802.11-based wireless LAN standards such as Wi-Fi as the world's dominant wireless LAN standard. Wi-Fi-based technology products consist of wireless access points, PCI cards, PCMCIA cards and mini-PCI modules. More than 200 products from 120 WECA member companies have been certified since March of 2000.

"This will be the dominant wireless standard," says 3Com Manager of Business Development and Wireless Standards Teik-Kheong Tan.

Among the companies putting their products to the test in the WiFi sector: Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO), Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL), Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), Compaq Computer (NYSE:CPQ), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), 3Com Corp. (NASDAQ:COMS), IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Nokia (NYSE:NOK).

Security To The Test

As the 802.11 standards are being developed, security seems to be the main concern of most wireless networking users and suppliers.

"The security threat is real," says Tan. "The main thing to keep in mind is that your security procedures must be just as strong as a wired LAN to prevent the casual eavesdropping.

That eavesdropping comes in the form of hackers that roam around industrial parks and randomly scan for wireless information being transmitted across a network.

The key says Tan is to change the default network ID (also known as SSID or ESSID) and enhance your security to match the assets you need to protect.

"You are more secure with WEP on than with WEP off," says Tan. "Large companies should consider virtual private networks and technologies such as RADIUS. But from what we've seen, users are not abandoning the technology despite the swell of security issues."

In response, the WECA group is now assembling a security committee to fast track an interim security solution before the 802.11i version is published sometime in June or July in 2002.

Alphabet Soup

Part of the allure of the 802.11 standard is that it is constantly evolving. Currently there are nine versions of the wireless standard ranging from 802.11a to 802.11i with a next generation already in the works.

To clarify the alphabet soup, WECA is simplifying the naming just a bit and adding a seal of approval for consumers.

The plan for 5-year certification includes renaming 802.11a to Wi-Fi5. 802.11.b - already known as Wi-Fi - transmits at 11 Mbps at the 2.4GHz end of the spectrum. Wi-Fi5 speeds along at 54 Mbps at 5GHz. The 5GHz band is also highly sought after by the radar community.

"The indea behind the seal is to show interoperability when you go to buy the product in the store," says Tan. "But as far as Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi5, one is not a replacement for the other."

The issue came to a head this summer as members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) squabbled about the specifications slated to be used on chipsets for all next-generation 802.11g products.

Fortunately, the standard has been agreed upon and is on its way to full certification.

According to WECA's schedule, most of the 802.11 versions should be approved by 2002 with actual products reaching store shelves as early as three months after approval.

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