The Case For WLAN Interoperability

Many new wireless devices don't play well on enterprise WLANs. It's time for the Wi-Fi Alliance to step up and fix the fragmented WiFi market.

January 22, 2015

4 Min Read
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Wireless networking has come a long way from its humble roots. We’ve seen five generational evolutions of wireless technology, and new cultures built on the empowerment that wireless brings to the client device landscape. At the same time, all is not rosy in the WLAN world when it comes to interoperability, and I believe it's time for the Wi-Fi Alliance to re-invent itself as a leader in the wireless device space.

Before delving into the industry's current problems, a little history. Back around 1999, wireless networking was new and exotic. Compared to Ethernet, it was highly variable in what it could deliver, and it became apparent that good WLAN design required new RF-savvy skills. It also was pretty clear that early devices were all over the map as far as interoperability was concerned. Because devices were a bit unpredictable when it came to playing nice with others, WLAN worked against itself a bit in the early days.

But a small group of wireless vendors and client device makers formed the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) to bring some order to the chaos and to promote WiFi as both a complement and alternative to the deeply entrenched Ethernet. In just a few years, WECA would re-brand itself as the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The phenomenal, mind-blowing evolution of WLAN over the past decade and a half owes much of its success to the Alliance. Not only did it deliver on basic interoperability certification when it was most needed, the Wi-Fi Alliance also seriously delivered on the promotion of wireless. But despite past success, the WLAN industry desperately needs much more interoperability.

On the surface, the Wi-Fi Alliance has an impressive roster of WiFi certification programs. The Alliance is currently made up over 600 companies from the wireless realm, and great emphasis (arguably too much) is put on backward compatibility as new products are released.

Aside from being great advocates for wireless in general and laying a strong foundation for product testing, what the Alliance is actually delivering these days is starting to feel dated and inadequate. Despite lofty promises of compatibility, conformance, and interoperability, WLAN administrators far and wide deal with the gaps created by what’s left out of the testing.

Somehow, despite all of the various certification programs in play, devices are still being produced that don’t play very well on the typical secure enterprise wireless network. Every day, wireless network designers and administrators need to creatively work around the shortcomings that “interoperable” devices ship with, even as the Alliance continues to puff up the importance of solid WLAN to business environments. If the system isn’t broken, it’s dangerously close to being so.

Google Glass was a game-changer among client devices in a number of ways. It made “wearables” somewhat mainstream, and I’ve chatted with everyone from doctors to police officers about the wonderful potential they see in Glass.

Yet, Google Glass doesn’t support wireless security. For a doctor to use Glass during surgery, his IT department has to dumb down the HIPAA-compliant hospital WLAN to accommodate Glass. We heard utter silence from the alliance as Glass popped up everywhere, and network after network was essentially penalized for it. This is just one example of where common-sense is lacking in the Wi-Fi Alliance's notions of interoperability and compliance.

We’re at a juncture where popular consumer devices like AppleTV, Chromecast, most business wireless printers and projectors, medical equipment, and countless other gadgets are finding their way into enterprise WLAN environments. Most can’t do business-grade security, many need performance-dragging legacy WLAN data rates turned on (that have been disabled for years), have slow 2.4 GHz adapters, or worse, need to be on the same Class C subnet as any device that wants to connect to them.

This is not what interoperability looks like to those both supplying and wanting to use wireless. As we move into the Internet of Things, these discrepancies will become the stuff of nightmares as device counts climb.

So how do we fix the fragmented landscape of modern wireless? Given its deeply rooted strategic goal to both shape industry and promote responsible evolution of wireless, it makes sense that the Wi-Fi Alliance should take up these problems and offer a meaningful, forward-looking strategy.

One option might be to deliver two new Wi-Fi interoperability standards: enterprise grade and consumer grade. It wouldn’t be hard to delineate between the two device classes, and would encourage the device makers that are stuck in 2002 to catch up or be relegated to the living room.

Whatever shape resolution takes, it’s overdue. It’s time for Wi-Fi Alliance members to accept their responsibility and recapture the spirit of "doing it right" that was so important in the early days of wireless.

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