IEEE: Chinese security standard could fracture Wi-Fi

The implementation of a Chinese security standard for wireless networking could undermine efforts to develop a global standard for wireless LANs (WLANs) and drive up the cost of networking equipment for end users, warned a senior executive at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) in a recent letter to Chinese government officials.

The Standardization Administration of China (SAC) announced the adoption of China’s WLAN standard, called GB15629.11-2003, in May. While WLAN equipment sold in China is required to comply with this standard from Dec. 1, a transition period has been granted that extends the compliance deadline for some WLAN products until June 1, 2004.

The Chinese WLAN standard is similar in many ways to IEEE’s 802.11 wireless networking standard – commonly known as Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi – but it has one crucial difference: it uses a different security protocol, called WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI). WAPI is not part of the 802.11 standard, which relies instead on Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP).

The existence of two different standards for WLANs, one for China and one for the rest of the world, could cause the market for wireless networking equipment to splinter in two, according to Paul Nikolich, chairman of the IEEE 802 Local and Metropolitan Area Network Standards Committee

“We believe that mandatory implementation of the WAPI protocols would unnecessarily fracture the world market for WLAN products,” Nikolich wrote in a letter dated Nov. 23 to SAC Chairman Li Zhonghai and Wang Xudong, China’s minister of information industry.

“We are concerned that mandatory use of the standard would prohibit the use of 802.11 standard products and thereby limit choice and increase costs to users,” he wrote.

China’s adoption of WAPI is meant to shore up the security of wireless networks, a concern shared by IEEE. WEP can be easily broken and this has prompted the development of a new IEEE standard, 802.11i, to plug security holes that it leaves open.

While work on 802.11i continues, the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group established to certify the interoperability of products based on 802.11, has pushed equipment vendors to adopt an improved security technology called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) as a stop-gap measure. WPA is intended to serve as a security enhancement for 802.11 until the adoption of 802.11i and is designed to be forward compatible with 802.11i.

Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying the interoperability of WPA-based WLAN equipment in April and plans to make the technology mandatory for interoperability certification by the end of this year, according to the group’s Web site.

In his letter, Nikolich acknowledged that 802.11 security needs to be improved and offered to engage Chinese authorities on this subject.

“We recognize that 802.11 security is not optimal and have been working to improve it through the 802.11i project,” he wrote. “We would like to better understand your concerns and see if they can be met through the current 802.11i draft standard.”

In addition, he suggested that IEEE and SAC arrange a high-level meeting in Shenzhen, China, to discuss how to increase Chinese participation in IEEE. The proposed meeting would be scheduled to coincide with a meeting of the IEEE 802.16 Working Group on Broadband Wireless Access likely to be held in Shenzhen from May 17 to 20, 2004, Nikolich wrote.

If no middle ground is found between IEEE and SAC on the question of WLAN standards, equipment vendors could be forced to make products that support both standards or produce two different types of WLAN equipment; one that supports GB15629.11-2003 for users in China and one based on 802.11 for the rest of the world.

“We’re trying to work closely with the Chinese,” said Stuart Kerry, chairman of the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN Working Group, adding that IEEE is committed to 802.11i.

“We believe that 802.11 is an international standard and that 802.11i is what the world wants,” Kerry said. However, IEEE is open to the possibility of incorporating WAPI into 802.11 to avoid splitting the market for WLAN products in two, according to Kerry. “It is complementary and we are investigating if we can encompass it as an amendment to 802.11,” he said.

– With files from Joris Evers

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