What We Have Is a Failure to Communicate

Despite the best efforts of wireless networks to standardize their systems, the tiniest glitches can still throw everything off

One of the great attractions of wireless local-area networking is that, unlike so many things in high-tech, it has developed around a single standard designed to insure that products from different vendors can easily operate with each other. But a few recent experiences have reminded me of the limits of such standards.

Any wireless gear that conforms to the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Assn.'s (WECA) Wi-Fi standard will interoperate with other Wi-Fi equipment. But compliance doesn't guarantee that getting the stuff to work will be easy, especially for people who are not tech professionals. Meanwhile, serious concerns about wireless transmissions' susceptibility to eavesdropping have led equipment manufacturers to offer an assortment of proprietary security enhancements. Both problems are being addressed, but in the meantime, interoperability is not quite what it's cracked up to be.


  I discovered how tricky it can be to get gear to work together when I received a couple of wireless notebooks from Hewlett-Packard and IBM. Both use wireless hardware from Actiontek that is based on chips from Intersil. My office network uses Orinoco base stations from Agere Systems (formerly Lucent Technologies). The built-in security, called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) uses a 5- or 13-character password to create an encryption key. On Agere-based systems you generally just type in the password when setting up equipment. But some Intersil-based systems, including the Actiontek gear in these notebooks, expect you to convert the text to a string of hexadecimal (base-16) characters, so that, say, "password" comes out as "70617373776f7264."

Once I got out my conversion chart and entered the password, I still couldn't connect to a base station. Finally, some helpful IBM engineers figured out that the problem was caused by a space in my "service set identifier" -- a fancy term for the name I gave the network. Once I eliminated the space, everything worked. But after a week, Agere, Intersil, and WECA were still debating exactly who or what was to blame for the difficulty.


  One reason for this confusion is that the Wi-Fi standard doesn't cover setup software. That may be changing. "Companies realize it's annoying," says David L. Cohen, a 3Com executive and chairman of WECA. "We are working on standardization by vendors of the user-interface experience." So a future version of the Wi-Fi standard will probably include standardized setup procedures.

The breakdown in common standards driven by security issues is more serious, but probably temporary. WEP, while never designed as heavy-duty encryption, was intended to provide the security most companies need to prevent snooping on wireless-network transmissions. But research has shown that the protocol is much weaker than advertised, and could be susceptible to attack even by relatively unskilled hackers.

Even before these reports surfaced, a committee from the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which is responsible for the basic wireless standards, was working on an improved security standard called 802.11i. Wireless-equipment vendors responded to the news of WEP problems by rushing out fixes ahead of the standard. Unfortunately, these quick-fix solutions don't interoperate with each other: A wireless PC card using 3Com's dynamic security link can't communicate with Cisco's Access Point equipment, which uses extensible authentication protocol.


  The 802.11i standard may be ratified by the end of the year, but there's a problem. It's likely to use a new method of encryption, the Commerce Dept.'s advanced encryption standard, that existing Wi-Fi hardware may not be able to handle. Cohen says WECA is working with the IEEE to devise improved wireless security that will be compatible with existing hardware.

This tortured tale shows that even with the best of intentions, maintaining a single standard across the high-tech industry is a daunting challenge. The work of slow-moving standards committees can easily be undone by fast-moving real world problems. The little issue that the standard doesn't cover can become a frustrating incompatibility for customers. Standards are worth the trouble, but they are never going to work perfectly.

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online