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Experts predict Wi-Fi explosion

IEEE approves 802.11i as an official standard, business community's interest in Wi-Fi expected to explode.

Now that 802.11i is an official IEEE standard, paving the way for more secure Wi-Fi products, industry experts predict the business community's interest in the technology will skyrocket in the next year or two.

Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Austin-based Wi-Fi Alliance, said the next step comes in September. That's when his group will start certifying products with WPA2, an update of Wi-Fi Protected Access, which the alliance introduced last year as a precursor to 802.11i. He's already seen a surge in demand since WPA came out, and believes the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) standards board's adoption of 802.11i last week will break the market wide open.

"Having a new standard in place is an important step forward," Hanzlik said. "Half the notebooks shipping today have Wi-Fi built in, and it's being embedded in other products. We're starting to see it in airplanes, several rail companies are offering it, and several auto manufacturers are looking at putting it in the next generation of cars."

Until recently, security concerns caused larger companies to shy away from Wi-Fi products, which establish wireless local area networks that enable machines to connect; sending and receiving data within a 150-foot range. Hackers made easy work of past security features like Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). But 802.11i addresses WEP's shortcomings with the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

"There were a number of issues with WEP, including the need to set a key into each device on a network," said David Halasz, chair of the IEEE 802.11i task group. "The 802.11i standard is designed to dynamically establish keys."

Jon Edney, author of the book "Real 802.11 Security," called the new standard ironclad. "It can be used anywhere," he said. "It's state-of-the-art and unbreakable, as good as anyone has done."

Edney said past standards also lacked 802.11i's interoperability. "Before, there was really no way to integrate the technology with other security protocols," he said. "Now, security at the wireless level can be integrated with enterprise security. It has hooks and links to latch on and is more convenient." In a year, Edney predicts products on the market "will probably universally support 802.11i."

Brian Serra, a senior security consultant for Chicago-based IT consultancy Forsythe Technology Inc., has watched companies hold off on Wi-Fi over security concerns. With the new standard, he said, bigger companies will start to adopt the technology.

With WPA, Serra said companies started talking about Wi-Fi, but didn't implement it. With 802.11i's adoption, he expects companies to start launching feasibility studies. "Now is the time for companies to start investigating the technology," he said.

Robin Ritch, director of wireless security marketing for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel, said the standard is the first to match up with government requirements. She sees the IEEE action as a sign the technology is maturing and said Intel has designed products that incorporate 802.11i.

"Now that the specification is out, we're waiting for the Wi-Fi Alliance to take action," Ritch said. "We'll wait until they certify it before we ship our products."

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