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Corporate Wi-Fi efforts are still struggling

Wireless in the workplace took center stage at last week's Wi-Fi Planet conference in San Jose, Calif. More than 115 vendors exhibited their wares at the newly re-christened tradeshow, formerly called 802.11 Planet. The name change, said conference chairman Ted Stevenson, reflects the ''widening recognition of the Wi-Fi brand and the growing popularity of the technology everywhere.''

According to Steve Nye, general manager of the Building Broadband Solutions unit of Cisco Systems, adoption of wireless LAN (WLAN) technologies has been faster on the consumer side than in the enterprise because of concerns about security, deployment complexity and management, as well as a general perception that the return on investment (ROI) in the technology is low.

Nevertheless, many of the early problems associated with WLAN technologies have been, if not exactly solved, at least addressed, Nye said during his conference keynote. The refinement of Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), for example, has addressed many of the concerns about security that plagued first-generation Wi-Fi, he said. In addition, the ongoing work of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and its 802.11i Working Group will ''put to bed the perception that security is an issue.'' The 802.11i specification is being designed to support stronger encryption, better key management and authentication, he said.

Concerns about deployment and management issues are being addressed by new products that employ a common management scheme that integrates WLANs into wired LANs, Nye said.

Addressing the issue of ROI, Nye cited statistics from a recent study that found workers in WLAN-enabled organizations were connected to their companies' networks 1.75 hours more per day than organizations without the wireless networks. In 2003, that study found, workers in WLAN-enabled companies were connected 3.5 hours more each day. Nye's conclusion: ''If we can provide the tools to our employees, they can now work when they want, where they want.''

However, the adoption rate of Wi-Fi is sure to be stalled again unless the industry overcomes barriers to anytime, anywhere connectivity -- what Nye called ''seamless roaming.'' He cited a study that predicted that approximately 80% of laptops would be wireless-enabled by 2005. As more and more devices emerge with built-in support for wireless networking, users ''... have to be able to open their laptops and logon wherever they are,'' Nye said. ''When this occurs ... that's when [Wi-Fi] will really take off and when behavioral change will occur. And that's when we will have changed this paradigm from working in one place to working anywhere we want.''

As far as Les Vadasz was concerned, Wi-Fi's problems are far from solved. Vadasz, one of the founders of Intel, now retired, brought conference attendees a sobering message during his keynote presentation: Much work remains if Wi-Fi is to proliferate. The best place to start, Vadasz said, was with ease of use.

''I don't know what the hell you are thinking,'' said Vadasz, speaking figuratively to Wi-Fi equipment makers. ''Are you designing these products for the fellow in the next cubicle or for consumers?''

Vadasz cited as an example the current requirement of many WLANs that the users manually enter the Service Set Identifier (SSID), the 32-character identifiers attached to the header of packets sent over WLANs, which act as passwords when mobile devices try to connect to the network. ''Grandma does not do SSID,'' Vadasz said. ''SSID should never appear!''

Only about one-fourth of users can install their wireless equipment without assistance, Vadasz said. ''Resellers complain that customers call for help even before opening the box!'' he noted.

Next on the Vadasz list: security. More than two-thirds of network architects at large enterprises fear that adding wireless would compromise their network security, while more than half of the executives see so-called rogue access points as a serious security problem.

Wireless networks are easier to corrupt and access than wired networks, Vadasz said. ''There are solutions for this, but they are either not readily available or cumbersome.'' Although he applauded the current work of the IEEE on 802.11i, he lamented that the working group's solution is long overdue. He wondered whether the solution was delayed because of technical issues or because the group has become a ''debating society.''

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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