April 2002

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Networking Standards: Too Wired to Go Wireless

IEEE Standards are one of our few weapons for beating back the complexity of contemporary consumer culture. When we buy 35 millimeter film, we don’t worry about whether the little holes in the film mesh with the little sprockets in the camera. They just do, regardless of who made the film or the camera. It’s because of standards. Without standards, commerce would crumble and we’d all be just a bit closer to frying out.

This good fight is fought hardest in the computer realm, where standard-setting organizations do what they can to clean up after hyper-competitive software and hardware vendors. For example, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, one of the world’s largest professional organizations, is the keeper of many standards in the networking arena. Standards like Ethernet.

IEEE 802.3, Ethernet Ethernet is a basket of techniques that keep the computers plugged into a network from bickering so that they can play nice together. IEEE didn’t invent Ethernet; Bob Metcalfe at Xerox did in 1973. In the early ‘80s, Xerox and other vendors submitted the Ethernet specifications to IEEE, which, in 1985, readily adopted them as a standard. IEEE named the Ethernet standard "IEEE 802.3 CSMA/CD", or eight o two dot three for short. Hardly as evocative as "Ethernet," but marketing people don’t run standards organizations—engineers do.

In any case, with a standard out there, those making networking hardware could just ensure that it obeyed the rules in 802.3 and they’d know that their equipment could be interchanged with anyone else’s 802.3-compliant equipment. This ability to "rip and replace" is one of the hallmarks of a successful standard, and it stirs up the ole competitive spirit. Largely because of the 802.3 standard, Ethernet exploded in popularity and took over the nascent PC networking world.

IEEE 802.11b, Wi-Fi Despite their success, LANs are so, well, wired. Fortunately, being wired is scheduled to become unfashionable in the next few years. The main reason is a series of new IEEE networking standards. ("The great thing about standards is that there are so many of them," the engineers like to say, probably to demonstrate that they can be as ironic as the next guy.) The first out of the gate was 802.11b, which, in an uninspired attempt at branding, the industry association promoting the standard quickly dubbed Wi-Fi (for wireless fidelity, yawn). But again, we’re talking engineers, not marketers.

802.11b products replace all the wires and hubs of a normal Ethernet LAN with radio transmitted at 2.4GHz. The transmission speed is about where LANs were five years ago, but it’s still much faster than anything previously thought possible for wireless.

The implications are significant. Those with Wi-Fi capable laptops can roam around the office and remain connected wherever they are, without worrying about who built the transmitter or whether the broadcast frequency is right. With Wi-Fi, you can set up ad hoc wireless networks quickly and with no cable installation. Universities are falling over themselves to get Wi-Fi base stations planted all around their campuses. Starbucks is installing Wi-Fi in many of its outlets. As prices fall, Wi-Fi will rapidly move into the home.

WEP So, why wait? Let’s rip out those cables and be free! Well, as with all things, there are complications. Like the fact that many microwave ovens, baby monitors and portable phones also use the 2.4GHz frequency, interfering badly with Wi-Fi networks.

And then there is that pesky security thing. Under normal conditions Wi-Fi has a range of 150 feet or so. But that’s only because most users have crummy antennae in their notebooks. Throw a $100 high-gain antenna at the problem and, using tools like the wonderfully named AirSnort, the dark-hearted can do core samples on your network from the highway—a hobby known as war driving. In high-tech neighborhoods, Wi-Fi access points are everywhere and are easy to intercept. War drivers have gone as far as to map hundreds of open, unprotected wireless LANs in key cities. The 802.11b standard does come with a set of security specifications called Wired Equivalent Privacy—but WEP isn’t worth the electrons it’s written in. AirSnort can bust WEP encryption in minutes. Once that’s done, the network is laid bare. At minimum, crackers can use your unprotected wireless network to cruise the Internet on your nickel. At worst, they can prowl through your network as if they had full rights.

IEEE 802.11a Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, has big fans, a huge consortium of vendors behind it and considerable momentum. Interference and security are a bit of a bummer, but most of the problems can be overcome with the right tools and techniques. Even with everything going for it, however, 802.11b may just be a flash in the pan. The problem is speed. 802.11b is fast, sure, but not fast enough. For real speed, you have to go to another standard: 802.11a. (The "a" is because work on the standard started before 802.11b.)

Products for 802.11a are just now being released, and they are not much more expensive than their 802.11b counterparts. But they are five times faster. They are also more secure and have the inherent advantage of operating in the baby-monitor-free zone of 5GHz. This is likely where the real action will in the next few years.

Mark Tamminga ( practices law and fiddles with software at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto.