A wonderful wireless world awaits

When we asked IT managers at the end of last year what technologies would be featuring in their rollout plans for 2002, wireless was one of those mentioned. But wireless technologies come in many shapes and forms.

When we asked IT managers at the end of last year what technologies would be featuring in their rollout plans for 2002, wireless was one of those mentioned. But wireless technologies come in many shapes and forms.To some people it means an alternative way of delivering wide area network services (the big hope of IT minister Paul Swain in those parts of the country beyond the reach of Telecom’s copper). To others it means data services for cellphones or other mobile devices. In the WAN case, there’s a confusion of untried technologies for service providers to pick from, causing Walker Wireless, for one, to go back on plans to deploy MMDS late last year, opting for UMTS TD-CDMA in its place. There are challenges, too, in the mobile data market; in particular, there’s the question of how to charge for it. With Telecom’s CDMA network only a matter of months old, and Vodafone’s equivalent GPRS network handicapped by a scarcity of handsets (“getting phones real soon” is how CDMA backers like to translate GPRS), the mobile data market lacks the maturity to judge whether pricing is set appropriately.Perhaps the wireless technology that’s truly ready for takeoff this year is LANs. That’s certainly what the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, the vendor consortium that manages the Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) standard (known as 802.11b), would like to think. It professes to be “stunned” at progress so far in adoption of wireless LANs and can only see their popularity increasing. One wonders if the alliance is as surprised as it sounds because of the security scares which surrounded wireless LANs last year. Meddlesome researchers in the US discovered a flaw in the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption algorithm designed to protect wireless LANs. They advised that all industry-standard 802.11 wireless LANs should be viewed as insecure and that users should “treat all systems that are connected via 802.11 as external”. The vulnerability they were highlighting required some coding which would be rewarded by recovery of the 128-bit WEP key used in wireless LANs. If that sounds hard, Computerworld and sibling publication PC World established by taking a stroll up Auckland’s Queen Street how easy it is to log on to wireless networks. Of 30 networks encountered during the exercise, only four had even bothered implementing WEP.So far the alliance hasn’t solved the WEP issue but it suggests a list of steps on its website that wireless LAN users should follow to make their networks secure. And it is working on a new version of WEP which will be incorporated into a new wireless LAN standard, 802.11i, which it expects to be ratified this year.That slight hiccup aside, the alliance has sound reason to be bullish about wireless LAN uptake. The existing “WiFi” standard, 802.11b, operates in the 2.4GHz unlicensed spectrum band at 11Mbit/s. This is the same frequency as the much slower, shorter range Bluetooth, with which WiFi is sometimes erroneously compared (and the cause of interference between the two). WiFi’s next iteration, however, is where the excitement lies. WiFi5 (802.11a) operates in the 5GHz band at 54Mbit/s. Its only apparent shortcoming is it doesn’t have quite the range of WiFi, which is of the order of 50m or so for an unobstructed signal.WiFi5 will be certified in the middle of the year, the alliance promises, and access points and network cards will initially cost about twice that of WiFi (a WiFi access card costs about $US80). Devices that can handle both are in the offing, as are WiFi5-capable consumer electronics devices for transmission of wireless audio and video. “Once you’ve surfed the net from an airport bar, you don’t ever want to go back to dial-up,” raves Phil Belanger, a past chairman of the alliance, on the wireless LAN experience.He may well be right. At the event where Belanger was speaking, I could have experienced a wireless LAN for myself: access cards were available for slotting into notebook PCs and enough wireless experts were on hand to solve any set-up problems. The only thing was, there was no network: the server needed rebooting. Wires or no wires, networks remain fragile.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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