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The Future Of Wi-Fi

Wireless networking used to be seen as complex and awkward, requiring arcane knowledge of radio engineering as well as network protocols. Wi-Fi made it seem much simpler--perhaps even too simple, as anyone who has tried to hunt down a rogue access point (AP) can attest.

It's about to get complicated again. The well-known IEEE 802.11a and 802.11b technologies have been joined by an alphabet soup of variants, today stretching as far as 802.11v. Most of these newer standards haven't been finalized yet, but they all represent innovations required before Wi-Fi can truly be considered mature and enterprise-class. In the meantime, buyers have to negotiate an array of competing proprietary approaches.

The coming innovations go beyond the well-trodden grounds of security and QoS. While both are important, they're problems that vendors have already addressed. Many Wi-Fi networks aren't secure, but that's because of poor configuration or obsolete equipment, not because of weaknesses inherent in the products or standards themselves. Thanks to 802.11i and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), wireless networks can be as secure as their wired counterparts.

The same is true for QoS. Although the 802.11e standard for traffic prioritization and bandwidth provisioning hasn't been formally ratified yet, most new data products support it, and the Wi-Fi Alliance is certifying interoperability for the parts of it that deal with prioritization under its Wi-Fi Multimedia (WMM) program. In the first few months of 2005, we'll see Wi-Fi phones that support both the QoS and security standards.

In fact, the greatest room for improvement is in network management, with new technologies emerging for both the radio link and the network infrastructure. Smarter transceivers could eliminate the need for radio engineering expertise within a year. The signaling protocols required for roaming between APs and from Wi-Fi to 3G will take longer, slowly emerging during 2006.

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