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Strategies Moving In Several Areas For WiFi Alliance

4/21/2003 02:00:00 AM Eastern

NEW YORK — After three years of the operation and certification of 680 products, the WiFi Alliance is preparing to move forward on several fronts, including 802.11g, public wireless hot spots and enhancing wireless network security.

The WiFi Alliance, which conducts certification for all 802.11 wireless network products, expects to start certifying 802.11g devices by late May, when the IEEE will finalize the 802.11g specification, said Dennis Eaton, WiFi Alliance board chairman. If the IEEE does not complete its task on time, the date could be pushed back, but Eaton does not expect it to go past July.

The lack of a solid specification from the IEEE and WiFi certification for the myriad 802.11g products now selling concerns Eaton.

Eaton said, "It is a little troubling that all these 11g products have come out, because there is a potential for consumer confusion if there are any interoperability issues." He said this has not yet been an issue because the products now available use the same chipset and will work together.

However, Eaton was not surprised that manufactures rolled out non-certified products, saying they had to meet consumers' desire for higher data-rate wireless networks. The first WiFi certified products are expected to be in retail by late 2003. Once certified, all 11g products will function together regardless of what chipset is used. The WiFi Alliance and the 802.11g vendors do not foresee any backward compatibility problems between the upcoming certified products and the installed base. The specification, except for some software changes, is set so any upgrades needed will be downloadable.

The Alliance has also started a global consumer awareness campaign to promote public wireless network hotspots. Called the WiFi Zone, the plan has wireless Internet providers placing a logo in areas where 802.11 networks exist, Eaton said. So far about 1,200 locations are noted in the United States, said Brian Grimm, WiFi Alliance marketing director. The only requirement to be labeled a WiFi Zone is it must use only WiFi certified equipment. The alliance has set up www.wi-fizone.org for consumers to find local hot spots. The alliance site does not list all public wireless access sites.

The next high priority issue for the Alliance is improving security for wireless networks. With a person's data literally flying through the air for anyone to pick up, security has always been one of the category's biggest problems. Eaton said there have been an increased number of directed attacks against wireless networks so the alliance is in the process of rolling out a new security measure called WiFi Protected Access (WPA).

WPA is an offshoot of another alliance project, the still unfinished 802.11i security specification. Eaton said WPA borrows several aspects of 802.11i to create a screen that can protect against any current attack scheme. A WPA software patch will have full Alliance certification this month. A version for the enterprise market will require a hardware upgrade. 802.11i is not expected to be ready until the end of the year.

The organization is also moving ahead to certify more dual band products, those containing 802.11b/g/a. The alliance has certified several dual band A and B chipsets, and in July will start certifying tri-band models. Dual band products are selling very well and he expects tri-mode devices to do the same, although the alliance does not foresee single-type products becoming extinct, said Frank Ferro, marketing director for Agere Systems, and a WiFi Alliance member.

There are many applications, such as multimedia, where a single type of wireless networking will be needed.

The multimedia and consumer electronics areas are expected to take off starting next year, Eaton said, when the alliance starts certifying 802.11e products. This specification is optimized for CE devices and the certification process and products should be on store shelves by mid-2004. These will likely take the shape of stand-alone devices that help CE and PC products share data, but CE components with embedded 802.11e capability are close. Some could see store shelves by late 2004 with a big ramp-up taking place the following year.

Eaton warned several issues still need to be worked out, such as digital rights management and chipset costs, before this takes place.