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« News for 12/4/2001 | Main | Loud Truth »

December 7, 2001

USA Today Gets Wi-Fi

USA Today's rather long and generally excellent piece on Wi-Fi: USA Today's two reporters on this piece did an excellent job of explaining Wi-Fi in words of three syllables or fewer, and avoided a lot of techie cant in explaining its utility and appeal.

One very weird error, though, based on what must be a misunderstanding. Another problem: There still isn't a Wi-Fi standard, so some of today's products might not work with others bought a year from now. That's expected to be ironed out soon, through action led by WECA and its 125 member firms. In fact, as readers of this forum know quite well, the WECA certification program has been in place for some time and is extremely effective. Virtually all devices for sale are certified as compliant with the Wi-Fi specification. Perhaps they confused the new 802.11a (Wi-Fi5) spec which is being finalized right now for certifying those devices.

Bravo to mass-media writers getting it right. And kudos to our friends in the community networking world for continuing to explain what they do and why (and apparently get their pictures in the paper).

3Com's Elegant Solution

Earlier in the week, I wrote about 3Com's announcement of a 4-device Ethernet-to-Wi-Fi bridge that required no special software and would work with any Wi-Fi access point. I queried the company for answers to a few questions about how it actually works, and decided that this is an awfully elegant solution.

The device doesn't use MAC masquerading, as I thought, where one MAC address would associate at the AP and the device would work like NAT in routing traffic. In fact, the bridge associates up to four MAC addresses via its single radio, effectively turning each Ethernet device into its own Wi-Fi device without any intermediate configuration.

This is extremely elegant, as it requires only minimal configuration of the bridge, and no real configuration of the Ethernet devices. Pricing was estimated at $350 and the unit is set to ship in January. I expect that this will supply one of the few missing pieces in enterprise/office migration to Wi-Fi, by bringing printers and older units into the loop.

Wireless Guerrillas in our Midst

The Wall Street Journal weighs in on free public Wi-Fi networks: I can't link to the article or reproduce it here, but suffice it to say that the analysis goes skin deep. It focuses pretty much on a single individual in Colorado, and doesn't - to my mind - fully capture what's going on.

The mainstream media is treating Wi-Fi the way the Internet was treated originally. The technical details coupled with scattered widespread and disparate methods of adoption and deployment lead to articles that try to exemplify a trend, but only illuminate a tiny aspect of it.

Here's the nut graf (the quintessence of the article): Mr. Selby is a wireless guerrilla, one of several hobbyists around the nation who are building shoestring wireless networks out of such materials as potato-chip cans and rubber hoses. They are doing so by piggybacking free of charge on the premium high-speed Internet connections that telecom and cable companies provide to many homes and businesses for as much as $1,000 a month. Even so, Mr. Selby, who eventually aims to charge for access to his network, says he hasn't encountered any resistance from providers of such high-speed links, who don't seem worried about his plans.

Selby isn't really the epitome of this topic, given that most of the community networkers never plan to charge - that's part of the point. I don't blame or discourage him from his goals, but the Journal picked an odd duck out of the line-up.

It also fails to discuss the obvious: many contracts with ISPs allow shared use of bandwidth among users. This is a frequent topic of conversation on the BAWUG wireless mailing list, which I recommend as a meet-and-learn list for anyone involved in setting up any kind of Wi-Fi network that has a free or fee public component. If your AUP (acceptible use policy) with your ISP prohibits sharing, then you're on your own. If you buy a T1, like one BAWUGer did, and it says you can resell bandwidth, you're golden.

It's clear the story was written to identify the coming convergence with cell carriers' interest: Other entrepreneurs are launching companies to offer small-scale Internet access via 802.11b in airports, hotels and coffee shops. And some think the technology could be harnessed to offer commercial high-speed Internet access to homes and offices. These developments could conceivably spell trouble for long-delayed "third-generation" cellphone networks, which are to offer high-speed data services in addition to voice. The small scale reference is odd, too: there are companies with a few dozen hot spots (which we'd all agree fits the definition), and then others like Wayport which have several hundred or have wired entire airport terminals. It'd be more accurate to say dozens of companies of all scales are trying to capitalize on the growing use of Wi-Fi in homes and businesses by building out networks.

This mysterious paragraph fails to explicate the security dilemma: Security is an issue, as some companies using 802.11b discovered when hackers tapped their corporate networks. Mr. Dayton says he can detect a neighbor's 802.11b network when he logs on at his Los Angeles home. You can't prevent people from picking up the signal, which is why Mr. Dayton sees his neighbor's network, but you can encrypt the traffic so they can't read it. Most experts think the problem can be circumvented. (Mr. Dayton in that graf, by the way, is Sky Dayton, founder of Earthlink.)

I would have written the graf this way: Wi-Fi offers built-in security through an encryption system, but researchers proved this was easily broken in summer 2001. Several free Internet tools allow non-technical hackers to break into networks that rely just on Wi-Fi's encryption. Corporations typically use a strong, unbroken method lumped together as VPN (virtual private network), while individuals are often stuck with little or no protection. ... and then into the rest of the graf eliminating that last, odd sentence. What problem can be circumvented? The lack of security, Wi-Fi's broken WEP system, or the presence of security (which I guess isn't a problem)?

1 Comment

send me the technical details please.