Enhanced security, quality on tap for Wi-Fi in 2004

Two key improvements for the security and performance quality of Wi-Fi devices are scheduled to reach wireless network users this year as the adoption of wireless technology continues to grow within businesses and home users.

The Wi-Fi Alliance will certify products for the new 802.11i and 802.11e standards by September, said Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The 802.11i standard is the complete version of the preliminary security standard Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) introduced last year, while 802.11e is a new standard that will improve the quality of wireless networks that transmit voice and video.

Security has been one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of wireless networking. Last year, WPA replaced the flawed Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) protocol to shore up wireless security before the full 802.11i standard could be ratified. WPA uses a dynamic encryption key as opposed to the static key used by WEP, and it also improves the user authentication process.

The 802.11i standard adds Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) technology, a stronger level of security than used in WPA. Enterprises and governments, which need the highest level of security available, may have to replace some of their networking equipment in order to support the AES standard.

Newer networking equipment released within the last three months will probably have enough computational power to handle the increased performance requirements of AES security, Hanzlik said. Network managers with older wireless devices should check with their vendor to see if that equipment will support a software download of the full 802.11i standard, he said.

Companies with older networking equipment must decide whether the data traveling over their wireless networks is critical enough to warrant a significant upgrade, said Aaron Vance, senior analyst with Synergy Research Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. In many cases, third-party products are available that can secure a wireless network when combined with the WPA standard, he said.

The Boston Public Library (BPL) isn’t worried about upgrading to the 802.11i standard just yet because it uses wireless gateways from Bluesocket Inc. to manage security policies on its wireless network, said Carolyn Coulter, systems officer with the BPL. The BPL provides the wireless network for the public to use at its main branch in Copley Square, but a library card is required to gain access to the network.

Other users, such as financial services firms, must do whatever possible to improve network security, Vance said.

While security tops most lists of wireless networking concerns, the new 802.11e standard will help home users set up wireless media networks and allow corporate users to deploy wireless handsets using voice over IP (VoIP) technology. This standard improves the quality of service of wireless connections by prioritizing traffic that must get through without delays or glitches, such as streaming video or voice transmissions, Hanzlik said.

It will be available as a software download for just about all wireless networking devices, Hanzlik said.

Upgrading to 802.11e will make wireless VoIP networks a realistic choice for network managers, Vance said. Later this year, handset makers will start rolling out dual-mode phones that support wireless LAN technology such as 802.11 as well as wide-area network standards such as Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), he said.

The BPL might consider moving its VoIP technology to a wireless network with the advent of 802.11e, Coulter said.

In September, the Wi-Fi Alliance will begin certifying products that use a subset of 802.11e called Wireless Media Extensions (WME) technology to improve quality of service. WME identifies packets of voice, video, audio or other types of data and prioritizes their delivery based on traffic conditions. Videos transmitted over wireless networks suffer greatly if packets are delayed or dropped, so that type of data is given priority over others traveling on a network, Hanzlik said.

The full 802.11e standard will include an additional technology called Wi-Fi Scheduled Media (WSM), but the Alliance wanted to make sure products sold during the fourth-quarter holiday season had some form of certification for use in home media networks, Hanzlik said. WSM allocates slices of bandwidth to various types of wireless data, and increases that bandwidth as needed for voice or video applications.

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