Communications: It's all wireless

Predictions about the future of communications conjure up different technologies that all have one thing in common: They're wireless. August will see approval by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers of a new wireless LAN standard, 802.11g, which will forge a converged path for the two WLAN standards that preceded it.

Meanwhile, IT managers are still waiting for third-generation wireless, which holds promise but has been hampered by technological failures.

The most widely deployed, enterprise-level WLAN standard is the 11-Mbps 802.11b, also known as WiFi, short for wireless fidelity.

Right behind it is 802.11a'sometimes called WiFi5 and pronounced Wi-Five'which offers greater speed of up to 54 Mbps and a more efficient transmission technology less susceptible to some kinds of interference. A wide range of enterprise-level 802.11a products are just now becoming available.

The 802.11g standard uses the Orthagonal Frequency Division Multiplexing modulation scheme developed for 802.11a in the 2.4-GHz frequency band, said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. This raises the WLAN speed in that band from 11-Mbps under 802.11b to 54 Mbps.

For now, Dulaney recommends, 'Stick with b.'

'When something newer and faster comes out, most people think they have to throw out the old and buy all new. That's definitely not the case here,' he said. 'You can put in 802.11b, then come in later and overlay 802.11a for users who need the speed.'

Using 802.11a will require additional access points, however. The latest WLAN access points from major vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. and 3Com Inc. support WiFi and 802.11a, and will offer software upgrades to 802.11g in August.

Security holes

But for many government users, a more significant consideration than speed is WLAN security'or lack of it.

'It can be the equivalent of an Ethernet port in your parking lot,' said Tim Grance, systems and network security manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

There are fundamental problems with the 40-bit encryption offered by 802.11b's Wired Equivalent Privacy, Grance said.

To offer improved WLAN security today, the WiFi Alliance, a nonprofit trade organization, certified Temporal Key Integrity Protocol. TKIP is an approved part of yet another standard, IEEE 802.11i, which won't be released for about a year. Called WiFi Protected Access, or WPA, the add-on security 'sidecar' offers 128-bit encryption and user authentication.

'WPA is a substantial improvement over WEP,' Grance said. 'However, it is not the endgame.' He called it an important but interim step in addressing WEP's inadequacies without hardware upgrades until Robust Security Networks'viewed as a long-term solution to 802.11 security'is available.

Agencies can also use virtual private networks on wireless networks to boost security, Grance said.

But they should wait for NIST certification of 802.11i'which will include the Advanced Encryption Standard'because it is based on a cipher that has not been validated for FIPS-140-2, he said.
Agencies should set security policies for wireless now, before they're taken short by a 'briefcase-based infiltration,' warned John Yoon, a wireless division product manager at 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

Users accustomed to wireless availability outside their agencies'and a proliferation of potentially insecure wireless hot spots'might bring it into work, just as they did with personal digital assistants.

'Users can take wireless devices home or add a wireless card to their laptops, and you've got a moving hole in the defensive perimeter of your network,' Yoon said.

Intel Corp.'s Centrino chip will make wireless access even easier for users. Designed for notebook PCs, the chip set gives built-in 802.11b wireless LAN capability. Vendors are developing Centrino notebooks that support both standards for release the second half of this year.

Managing wireless technologies also will offer new challenges, Dulaney said. Most network management tools won't notice if a wireless access point goes down, he said.

Network management vendors such as Cisco are adding such tools now. 'The major feedback we get from government and private enterprise IT departments is that they want the same level of network services on wireless as they have on wired networks,' said Ron Seide, Cisco System Inc.'s Aironet wireless access point product manager. Laying out a wireless network can be more difficult than building a conventional network. 'With a wired network, you can see the copper,' he said.

'Wireless is not just a new protocol to add to the existing mix,' Dulaney said. 'It calls for radical architectural shifts in creating and delivering applications.'

Although 3G, or third-generation wireless voice and data networking, has its supporters, rollouts of 3G networks globally have been plagued by technical glitches. But several near-3G technologies are making inroads in the United States.

Code Division Multiple Access, an alternative to Global Systems for Mobile Communications, lets multiple transmissions be carried simultaneously over a single wireless channel.

Implemented in GSM networks, the always-on General Packet Radio Service has data transfer speeds of up to 114 Kbps.

With support waning for Cellular Digital Packet Data technology, used for transferring data over existing cellular networks, many police departments and other state and local government agencies are weighing use of 2.5G technologies.

Homeland security needs will likely lead to a sharp increase over the next five years in location-based services'in which users get localized information on anything from traffic, navigation and geographic conditions to business, government and consumer services'said Monica Basso, a Gartner analyst based in Milan, Italy. 'Not all applications need Global Positioning System accuracy,' Basso said.

Sami Lais is a free-lance writer in Takoma Park, Md.

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