Is this the year for wireless gear?

The Linksys WAP11 Access Point, priced at $119, has 64-, 128- and 256-bit WEP security and Media Access Control filtering.

Proxim's Orinoco ComboCard connects to both 802.11a and 802.11b networks, and is available in Gold, at $179, and Silver, at $149, versions.

WiFi and its 802.11 counterparts are ready, although security is still catching up

In a world filled with uncertainty, one thing seems a sure bet: 2003 will be a breakthrough year for wireless networking in offices and campuses around the country.

Starting with the IEEE 802.11b wireless standard, also known as WiFi, on-the-go and ad hoc wireless connections are popping up in public spaces, office complexes and enterprise campuses. Wireless connections and networks are being built with inexpensive gear compliant with WiFi standards. And around the corner are 802.11g and 802.11a systems, the latter often compatible with 802.11b.

The accompanying chart on Page 46 includes a sampling of available products. Many vendors have products compatible with 802.11a or 802.11b networks, as well as combo products that work with both.

Dennis Eaton, chairman of the WiFi Alliance and a strategic marketing manager for wireless radio chip maker Intersil Corp. of Milpitas, Calif., said he expects a busy year. 'There's still a good market for WiFi PC Card devices, and the USB radio market has grown significantly,' he said.

New hot spots

Echoing such optimism is the purchase of the moribund MobileStar 802.11b resale business by T-Mobile, which is in the process of turning up wireless 'hot spots' in 1,000 Starbucks locations and hundreds of Borders Books & Music stores across the United States.

The burgeoning WiFi market received a serious boost with the Dec. 5 announcement that AT&T Corp., Intel Corp. and IBM Corp., along with two global investment companies, joined forces to create Cometa Networks Inc., based in San Francisco, offering broadband wireless Internet access nationwide. The company will work through other carriers and providers to deliver the service.

Cometra said it will work with major national and regional retail chains, hotels, universities and real estate firms to deploy the broadband wireless access service in hot spots throughout the top 50 U.S. metropolitan areas.
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According to Keith Waryas of market researcher International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., 2003 'could really be a pivotal year for 802.11, because we're going to see so many new standards in terms of technology for security'from authentication to encryption.'

Security is a key issue for WiFi makers and users, particularly government users. During the post-9-11 era of heightened security, the fact that so-called 'war drivers' can scoot around a town and access unprotected WiFi networks, or even crack those with rudimentary Wired Equivalent Privacy protection, has given observers such as Waryas cause for concern.

'Government to date has not been that high an adopter of WiFi. My expectations have always been they won't need it,' Waryas said in an interview. 'There are huge opportunities in logistics'such as warehouses, [the] Postal Service'where WiFi offers process improvements. But taking it to the IRS? There's too much valuable data floating around there.'

To assuage such fears, the WiFi Alliance is promoting WiFi Protected Access to replace the existing WEP. WPA is designed to work with products on the market today and is expected to first appear in WiFi-certified products during the first quarter of the year. Most vendors are expected to offer firmware and software updates for products currently in use, the group said.

Security upgrade

'The bar for security is always rising and the development of robust security solutions takes time,' said Stuart J. Kerry, Chairman of the IEEE 802.11 Standards Working Group for Wireless Local Area Networks.

'WPA will meet the needs of both manufacturers and customers for the foreseeable future,' and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers will also continue working on the 802.11i standard'designed to improve security at the Media Access Control layer'which is expected to be completed about midyear, Kerry said.

Because WPA is backwards-compatible with legacy equipment, the WiFi Alliance's Eaton expects it to gain wide acceptance.

He said the standard uses Temporal Key Integrity Protocol, a subset of the emerging 802.11i standard.

Making a campus ready for WiFi connections between buildings can shrink the cost of T1 and T3 lines, with point-to-point radios taking the place of some expensive phone circuits.

There's a question of security there, too, but WiFi vendors are adding their own security features to the standards. Proxim marketing director Ken Haase said, 'Our point-to-point products have proprietary solutions with five levels of security. The encryption used there would take well over a man-year to decrypt.'

Between buildings, 'we're using a very narrow focused beam between radios, point-to-point directional narrow beams. You can't move the radio'if you do, you'll shut the link down,' he said.

Productivity gains are at the heart of WiFi deployment, and the forecast for 2003 is clear: more WiFi, in more places, than ever before.

Mark A. Kellner is a free-lance technology writer in Marina Del Rey, Calif. E-mail him at mark@kellner2000.com.

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