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Security remains the key issue deterring enterprise users from making major investments in Wi-Fi, despite all the improvements over the past year. Whether real or perceived, the security risks of wireless LANs are still holding deployments back. Conscious of this, the Wi-Fi Alliance is trying to beef up standard security still further.

It has already agreed to a dual-layer security approach, with WPA2 (the brand name for the 802.11i standard) supporting advanced functions including AES encryption, while the more basic WPA – originally an interim standard en route to 802.11i – will be kept for devices that require less stringent security and lower costs, particularly in the consumer space.

Now the group intends, for WPA2, to enforce a higher level of encryption, reiterating a decision it tentatively made last autumn to require 64-character passwords. This move was in response to a spate of rogue access point attacks and new question marks over Wi-Fi’s resistance to hackers.

It is even possible that the ‘lite’ version of WPA will be dropped later this year, making it compulsory even for consumer devices to support WPA2 in order to be certified as Wi-Fi compatible.

The risk of a very stringent requirement is that vendors at the budget end of the market bypass testing and certification altogether and so undermine the Wi-Fi Alliance’s brand. Many consumers have been found to recognize generic terms such as wireless LAN, and individual brands such as Centrino, more than the term Wi-Fi, so it can be argued that Wi-Fi certification is not essential to success in the home market.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group believes in keeping the two-tier system. "I don't think everyone will need AES. I also think higher level security of the 802.1x or VPN variety can effectively substitute for AES in many cases,” he said. Throughout this year, the Alliance will be adding various strains of EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) to its testbed. As the Wi-Fi community seeks to instil confidence in its technologies,

WiMAX will face the same challenges once certified equipment starts to become available late this year. Although the 802.16 standards have far greater security functionality built into the base than Wi-Fi did, the perception of their safety will have to be high before they win the trust of enterprise and carrier users. Terabeam, which is developing WiMAX-ready equipment, is one company that believes there are significant security gaps to be filled in 802.16-2004. In particular, it claims WiMAX’ authentication facilities are limited and its encryption method, DES 3, is less robust than AES. A combination of standards activity – particularly with an eye to government customers – and third party enhancements will be essential for commercial WiMAX products to pass the grade. Already, Intel has submitted proposals for incorporating AES into 802.16 too.

Authentication, based on X.509 digital certificates, is included in the media access control layer and gives every 802.16 customer transceiver its own built-in certificate, plus one for the manufacturer, allowing the base station to authorize the end user. Link privacy is implemented as part of another MAC sublayer, the privacy sublayer. It is based on the Privacy Key Management protocol that is part of the DOCSIS BPI+ specification.

As in other standards, many advances will come from individual vendors, whether enhancements that differentiate an individual product, or work that may be fed back into the standards process. One example is Airspan’s work with Hifn, a specialist maker of security coprocessors. In December, Airspan said it would use its partner’s 7955 coprocessor in its base stations as “a suitable encryption solution for IEEE 802.16-2004, that would also be able to support the evolving 802.16e standard”.

The Hifn 7955 is designed for networking applications like virtual private networking (VPN) broadband routers, wireless access points, VPN edge router/gateways, firewall/VPN appliances, and other network and customer premise equipment. It accelerates a variety of IPsec and SSL/TLS protocols including DES, 3 DES, AES and public key. In addition to IPsec and SSL protocols, it also supports the temporal key integrity protocol (TKIP) and AES counter mode encryption.

Although WiMAX may be inherently more secure than its local area cousin, such enhancements will be important if its uptake is not to be delayed, like Wi-Fi’s, by lack of user confidence. In the end, this will be a more important factor in the speed of adoption of 802.16 than the much publicized delays in equipment certification.

Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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