Review: Perfect Harmony

The 802.11a access point market is starting to fill out with SOHO and enterprise players. We found Proxim's product hits all the right notes.

June 24, 2002

26 Min Read
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But security isn't the only concern of enterprise IT managers contemplating WLAN deployments or expansions. Limited money and staff mean widespread deployments remain a pipe dream for many IT managers, unless they can prove a compelling short-term return on investment. And then there's the fear that investing in today's most popular WLAN technology--802.11b WiFi--will leave you wishing you had waited just a little longer for a higher-performance system.

That's where 802.11a comes in. Although first approved in 1999, 802.11a has been slow to take off, not only because engineering 11a chipsets is challenging but also because the success of 802.11b has made that system a de facto standard. The landscape changed in 2001, however, when Atheros Communications began volume shipment of its 802.11a chipset. Until then, a war of white papers raged, with some touting 11a as the solution to emerging WLAN performance and capacity problems and others speculating that 11a products would have range limitations of 30 feet. Thus, when we took a look at the first 802.11a offerings, we didn't have high expectations. When the dust settled, we discovered some truth on both sides of the battle line. The best 802.11b products did have significantly greater range than 11a offerings, particularly in walled-office environments. Still, 11a range was better than expected, well in excess of 100 feet in many cases, and 11a was fast.

When we set out, we recognized that the market is still developing. Atheros is still the only vendor shipping 11a chipsets, though we expect to see credible competition emerging in coming months from Cisco Systems, Intel, Intersil and others. Interoperability will become a nonissue in the near term. We also recognized that many of the first 802.11a products making their way onto the market were not targeted at the enterprise. Nonetheless, we thought it was worthwhile to examine what was available, so we invited D-Link Systems, Intel Corp., Intermec Technologies Corp., Linksys, NetGear, Proxim Corp., SMC Networks and Sony to submit their access points for testing. All but D-Link and Sony accepted; neither provided a reason for declining, but since both target the consumer space, we don't consider it a big loss. We conducted all testing at and around our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®.

802.11a: The Details

The secret behind 802.11a is its OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) modulation scheme, which offers significant performance benefits compared with more traditional spread-spectrum systems. Both 11a and 11b share a common MAC (Media Access Control) interface, but they share nothing in common at the physical layer except that they both employ radio frequency technology. While 11b systems max out at 11 Mbps (around 5.5 to 6 Mbps effective throughput with overhead), 11a systems offer a data rate of 54 Mbps and a maximum throughput of around 24 Mbps. Most of the products we tested also include proprietary turbo modes that use channel aggregation to boost performance to 72 or even 108 Mbps, but that's clearly a nonstandard offering. While speed is certainly a compelling reason for enterprises to deploy 802.11a, capacity is an even better justification. Although 11b's paltry 83.5-MHz allocation in the 2.4-GHz band is enough to support three nonoverlapping radio channels, 11a offers much more: The FCC has allocated 300 MHz of the spectrum for unlicensed operation in the 5-GHZ band, 100 MHz each at 5.15 to 5.25 GHz, 5.25 to 5.35 GHz and 5.725 to 5.825 GHz. While regulations vary depending on the frequency channels, that's a lot of bandwidth--enough to support eight nonoverlapping channels, making it much easier to design 5-GHz cellular systems that don't have interference problems. Another big positive--at least for now--is that the 5-GHz band is not as polluted as the 2.4-GHz band, which supports 11b, Bluetooth, cordless phones, microwave ovens, wireless video-surveillance systems--you get the idea.

Whoa There, Cowboy

So why not skip 802.11b altogether and just implement 11a? First, there is the range issue, which means more access points must be deployed so the cost is higher. Second, and more important, there's no easy way to provide backward compatibility with the older 11b standard. Dual-mode access points and chipsets are due to appear later this year, a development that may simplify things, but the transmission range differences between 11a and 11b may still complicate deployment. The most common analogy is Ethernet, which improved from 10 to 100 to 1,000 Mbps, and with each advance, not only was multimode operation key to maintaining backward compatibility but UTP cabling upgrades were needed in many cases. However appealing the potential of 11a may be, you may not need the additional bandwidth for your applications, and there's no doubt that 11b offerings are less expensive and more mature.

Still, by year's end we expect all the major WLAN vendors to offer 11a products, with many offering dual-mode 11a/11b access points that are built using two radios. WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance) will offer a WiFi5 certification program, which will help ensure interoperability between products based on different chipsets (there will likely be quite a few contending for your vendor's business). After that, we'll begin to see true dual-mode offerings--both access points and client NICs--built around new dual- and tri-mode chipsets that support 802.11a. 802.11b and 802.11g, which offers 54-Mbps OFDM at 2.4 GHz. The emergence of dual-mode clients will make deploying 11a systems much safer because all your client devices will maintain backward compatibility with home and hot-spot networks.

We also expect significant improvements in throughput and range of 11a systems, perhaps as much as 20 percent, in the second-generation chipsets. And we'll see support for enhanced security standards--provided they ever make it out of the 802.11i working group. The future for 5-GHz WLANs is indeed bright. Unless we can find some way to suspend the laws of physics, you'll need to contend with slightly higher power consumption and decreased range in comparison with 2.4-GHz systems, but that's likely to be a trade-off many organizations are willing to make.

Testing 1, 2, 3

We stayed in the lab to test features, functionality and performance, and we did range and roaming testing in a classroom and office building. Most of the walls in our test site are Sheetrock over metal studs, and most doors are metal. Performance testing measured throughput on an isolated network, with and without WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), while range testing looked at not only distance but the ability to stay connected during transit within one access point cell. To gauge roaming capabilities, we placed two access points on different channels but with the same SSID (service set ID), so there was an area of overlap. We then moved from one access point to the other while monitoring the association status. For a baseline we ran tests on an 802.11b Cisco Aironet 350 setup running at 50 milliwatts (half the maximum power), providing a comparison between 802.11a and 802.11b.

Our Editor's Choice award goes to Proxim's Harmony 802.11a Access Point, a system that reflects the company's many years of experience in the WLAN industry (Proxim entered two products, the Harmony and the Skyline; each focuses on different market segments). While far from perfect, Proxim did a much better job than any other vendor in addressing the single greatest concern about 802.11a: transmission range. We went only 140 feet in our test environment before connections dropped--more than 100 feet less than in our Cisco Aironet 802.11b reference test--but the Harmony's range far exceeded that of its closest competitor. In addition, the Harmony's unique two-tier architecture provides significant functional and management advantages over traditional access point architectures.

We also liked the Intermec MobileLAN Access 2106, which is loaded with features tailored toward enterprise environments, but performance and range limitations made it second-best. The only other product we tested that we would consider for large-scale enterprise deployment is the Intel Pro/Wireless 5000, which has a unique software-configurable antenna design and a strong feature set. The rest of the products are oriented toward single access point home and small-business applications. They all had similar feature sets and performance, and range didn't vary much. Of these products, we liked the SMC offering most and gave it our Best Value award. All these products have significant range limitations, meaning multiple access points must be installed in all but the smallest homes and offices.

Proxim Harmony 802.11a Access Point | Intermec technologies corp. MobileLAN Access 2106 | SMC Networks MC2755W wireless access point | NetGear HE102 802.11a wireless access point | Intel PRO/Wireless 5000 LAN Access Point |

Linksys WaP54A Instant Wireless 802.11a Access Point | Proxim Skyline

Proxim Harmony 802.11a Access Point We consider Proxim's Harmony the most appropriate 11a access point for deployment in the enterprise. While performance in our tests was generally in line with that of most of the other products tested, the Harmony's transmission range far exceeded that of its rivals. Proxim's two-tier hardware architecture uses clusters of access points connected to APCs (Access Point Controllers). This design is unique in the WLAN industry and allows for centralized configuration and management of both 11a and hybrid 11a/11b/OpenAir networks while enhancing roaming capabilities. You'll pay considerably more for Harmony than you will for most of the other products reviewed, but if your responsibilities involve deployment of hundreds of access points, its superior management capabilities are worth the cost.

Installation of Harmony access points is a breeze. All management is coordinated by the APC, which connects multiple access points over standard Ethernet. We simply connected the access point and the APC to the same network, and the new access point showed up with its MAC address registered immediately in the APC management application. You can also manage access points that are on different subnets through a single APC. The APC's Web management interface is well-designed, with many features not found on lower-cost products. For example, Harmony includes an auto-image synchronization capability that lets a single APC automatically update access-point flash code when a new version is uploaded to the APC. This initially caused problems for us because our APC, which we had used in a previous review, contained some outdated access-point flash code. When the APC automatically pushed that code to new access points, they would no longer function. Proxim quickly resolved this issue with an upgrade to the latest access-point flash code from its Web site.

Proxim's Harmony supports most of the basic features you'd expect on an 11a access point. The APC stands alone in supporting default templates for configuring 802.11a, 802.11b and OpenAir access points. Managers have considerable control over network traffic. For example, you can direct the ability of specific wireless devices to communicate directly with one another. The APC includes protocol filters to restrict certain traffic, including broadcasts and multicasts, from being forwarded between wired and wireless networks. Another impressive feature of the Proxim Harmony architecture is that mobile clients can roam between access points on different subnets with all traffic tunneled through the APC. The Proxim Harmony APC can support as many as 10 different remote subnet entries. A Proxim Harmony access point supports two modes of operation: tunneled mode and managed mode. In tunneled mode, all access point traffic is routed through the APC, which processes all traffic, thus allowing policy management and subnet roaming. In managed mode, access points are still centrally managed, but they communicate directly with the wired network. While managed mode doesn't provide as much control over traffic, it avoids a potential performance bottleneck at the APC. If an APC becomes congested, you can scale the system by installing multiple APC, but that increases the cost. Proxim's challenge is to scale the APC's performance to handle as many access points as possible. Another key enterprise feature is the Proxim Harmony Power System, which provides power-over-Ethernet capabilities to 11a, 11b and OpenAir access points. SNMP support is also provided through the APC.

One feature we would have liked is the ability to adjust radio transmission power. This is scheduled to be incorporated in the next firmware release. Also, unlike Harmony's 11b and OpenAir access points, this version of the Harmony 11a cannot function in standalone mode without the APC. This issue is also expected to be addressed. Unlike Intermec's unit, Harmony lacks the capability to recover failed access points.

As for performance, Proxim's Harmony made a good showing. In the turbo mode, we obtained throughputs of more than 30 Mbps. Only SMC's product turned in higher numbers. Performance in standard 11a mode, which didn't vary much product to product, was average.

In transmission range, Proxim's Harmony access point is the best of any product tested. Its coverage extended as far as 140 feet in one direction. The ping coverage at the various spots indicated that up to 15 percent packet loss was observed at spot E, with up to 40 percent packet loss at spot F. At the remaining spots there was zero packet loss (see "Range Results" graphic).

Harmony 802.11a Access Point, $695. Proxim Corp., (800) 229-1630, (408) 731-2700. or [email protected] Intermec Technologies Corp. MobileLAN Access 2106

Given Intermec's long history of supporting wireless networking in factories, warehouses and various vertical markets, it's no surprise that the MobileLAN Access 2106 is a true enterprise-class access point. The product is loaded with advanced features, and its powerful and flexible management capabilities make it a solid choice for an 802.11a infrastructure deployment. However, the transmission range was significantly less than that of the Proxim Harmony, and the granularity of some of the features may require considerable training of your support staff.

The installation of the Intermec access point is simplified by the Microsoft Windows-based MobileLAN Access utility. We installed the utility on a machine that connected to the same network as the access point, then set the initial IP address for the access point. This utility also has options for restoring the access point to defaults and recovery of a failed access point. Aside from Intermec, only Proxim Harmony supports a software-based reset feature; SMC, Intel, Linksys and NetGear support hardware-based resets to restore the access point to factory defaults. Although we did not get an opportunity to recover a failed access point, we did restore it to factory defaults on several occasions during our testing.


802.11a Access Point PerformanceClick here to enlarge

Once we set the initial IP address, we were able to configure the other parameters for the access point through a Web browser. The Web management interface is difficult to navigate, and the sheer number and depth of its various features can make it intimidating at first. We found that we had to refer to the online help several times before understanding some advanced features. In contrast, the Proxim Harmony APC's Web management interface is friendlier and simpler to use, though with less granularity. Intermec's Java-based MobileLAN Manager utility simplifies administration by allowing centralized management and configuration of access points. We used it to add, configure and manage new access points. It's functional, though its ease of use could be better.

The Intermec access point offers most of the standard attributes found in lower-cost 11a access points, but it also has many features targeted at the enterprise environment. The Intermec offering is the only one we tested to include support for IEEE 802.1x authentication (Proxim has since added this capability), and the feature worked well when we tested it in our labs using a Funk Software Odyssey server.

The Intermec access point supports an integrated RADIUS server, allowing the access point to use RADIUS to authenticate users that need to log into the access point configuration interface. It boasts a TFTP server capability, which lets mobile or wired TFTP clients transfer files (in the system file directory of the access point) to or from the access point. Power-over-Ethernet support is also available for the Intermec access point, as is the case with Proxim Harmony and Intel. Some of the product's advanced features may seem esoteric (for example, Intermec's is the only access point that allows for adjustment of the Ethernet frame type between DIX and SNAP), but they are representative of functionality that has been requested by Intermec customers over the years.

The Intermec access point's support for distributed network upgrades lets managers deploy firmware upgrades to all access points that are part of the same spanning tree. Proxim Harmony is the only other access point that helps with centralized upgrades. Another useful feature is that not only can you discard changes made to the access point configurations but you don't have to reboot the access point for changes to commence. Many access points require a reboot before any configuration changes take effect and won't let you discard pending changes.

Similar to Proxim Harmony, Intermec's is the only other access point to let mobile clients roam between access points on different subnets using an IP tunneling technology. However, unlike Proxim Harmony, MobileLAN deploys multicasting to allow roaming in more than 10 remote subnets. Unfortunately, certain basic features, such as the ability to adjust power output to create smaller cells, and hardware reset capabilities are missing. The Intermec access point offered the best performance in normal mode but was average in turbo mode. We were disappointed in the product's range, which was second worst of all products tested. The ping coverage at the various spots, with maximum antenna transmit power enabled, indicated up to 40 percent packet loss at spot E and 100 percent packet loss at spot F.

MobileLAN Access 2106, $795. Intermec Technologies Corp., (800) 934-3163, (425) 348-2600.

SMC Networks MC2755W Wireless Access Point

SMC's 2755W access point is more suitable for SOHO (small office/home office) deployments. With its high-speed 802.11a WLAN capabilities, extremely aggressive price and simple management interface, it is bound to catch the attention of cost-conscious customers. The SMC offering looks virtually identical to the Atheros reference-design product we evaluated previously (see www.nwc. com/1305/1305sp3.html). This is no surprise--Accton Technology, SMC's parent company, has a manufacturing relationship with Atheros. While the 2755W provides basic WLAN functionality, however, its features are not extensive enough for enterprise installations. We used the setup wizard utility, which works via an HTML browser, to get the 2755W running. The access point is a plug-and-play device; no explicit configuration is needed in most cases. The access point supports standard features such as normal and turbo modes, WEP security, and MAC address ACLs (access control lists). The 2755W's built-in DHCP server capabilities can be used to assign IP addresses to the wireless clients that associate with the access point, a feature that might benefit small-office or branch-office environments. In addition, SMC provides SNMP support. Unlike Intermec's and Proxim's enterprise access points, however, the 2755W does not support 802.1x nor power over Ethernet. And there are no provisions to efficiently manage groups of access points.

In our performance tests, SMC offered the fastest throughput in turbo mode, in excess of 31 Mbps. In normal mode, performance was slightly below average but still acceptable. Our range tests revealed that SMC had an above-average coverage area, as far as 126 feet in one direction. The ping coverage at the various spots, with maximum transmit power enabled, showed up to 35 percent packet loss at spot E and up to 20 percent packet loss at spot F. At the remaining spots there was zero packet loss.

MC2755W 802.11a Wireless Access Point, $490. SMC Networks, (800) SMC-4YOU, (949) 679-8000. or [email protected]

NetGear HE102 802.11a Wireless Access Point

NetGear's HE102 access point, the least expensive product we tested, is geared toward the SOHO market. Its strong point is the simplicity of installation, but several feature shortcomings need to be addressed soon.

We installed the HE102 using an HTML browser on a computer that was on the same network as the access point. Although NetGear does not offer a utility for the purpose, the HE102's installation process deserves kudos. We just opened the browser and wrote the access point's name (as printed on the bottom of the device) in the URL field, and we were immediately taken to the access point's Web-based configuration page. All subsequent setup can be done similarly. The features supported by the HE102 are like those in the SMC access point, including normal and turbo modes, WEP-based security, the ability to adjust transmission power, and MAC-address-based ACLs.

Only in the NetGear product did we find a serial console port. While all the products we tested are designed for in-band management, a console port can be a welcome feature when you are experiencing network problems. Unlike the SMC 2755W, NetGear's product does not include an integrated DHCP server, but the company says one will be added in the next firmware release. The product also lacks SNMP support and, unlike the other products tested, does not include an online help feature, something that might be desirable in SOHO environments.

In our performance tests, the HE102 came in second in normal mode and right around average in turbo mode. Range testing revealed a fairly limited coverage area, similar to the Intermec device. Ping coverage at the various spots, with maximum transmit power enabled, indicated up to a 20 percent packet loss at spot E and up to 10 percent packet loss at spot F. At the remaining spots there was no packet loss.

HE102 802.11a Wireless Access Point, $340. NetGear, (888) 638-4327, (408) 907-8000. Intel PRO/Wireless 5000 LAN Access Point

The Intel Pro/Wireless 5000 access point has an unconventional appearance, though its aerodynamic shape does catch one's eye. The key difference between the Wireless 5000 and the other products in this review is its integrated antenna design, which lets you select the antenna beam. However, the Intel product is the only one we tested that does not support a higher-speed turbo mode. While turbo mode is just a proprietary extension of 802.11a, it can be useful in some cases. We wonder why Intel chose not to support turbo given its availability in the Atheros chipset.

If Proxim's Harmony and Intermec's 2106 represent enterprise offerings, and Linksys', NetGear's, SMC's and Skyline's devices are more appropriate for SOHO applications, the Intel offering is what we might term a "tweener." It will appeal to the value-conscious market and has almost enough features and functionality to be a contender in the enterprise.


The installation procedure for the Intel access point is via an HTML browser, similar to that of the Linksys. The Wireless 5000 has a standard SOHO-oriented feature set, but its antenna design can be configured via software to function as either an omni-directional system or a higher-gain directional patch system. While we were impressed with the theoretical benefits of this system, which provides the flexibility to deliver coverage to certain areas within a building in a more efficient manner, we didn't notice much difference in our range testing. In those tests, which we conducted in omni-directional antenna mode, the coverage area is up to 130 feet in one direction, second only to Proxim's Harmony. The Intel Wireless 5000 provides SNMP support, a feature included in all the access points except the Linksys WAP54A, NetGear HE102 and Proxim Skyline. The product also supports power-over-Ethernet capabilities, which are important for enterprise deployments. If Intel enhances its multi-access-point management and adds security services, the Wireless 5000 will be a viable competitor in the enterprise market. Intel also expects to be among the first vendors to offer a dual-mode 11a/11b version of its access point. While you can get this dual-radio support capability today with Proxim Harmony, Intel plans to integrate both radios in the same box. The utility of such a design will depend on the propagation characteristics in your location.

The Wireless 5000's performance in standard mode ranked third. The ping coverage showed only up to 5 percent packet loss at spot C and up to 80 percent packet loss at spot F. At the remaining spots there was no packet loss.

Intel Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN Access Point, $449. Intel Corp., (800) 538-3373, (503) 264-7354.

Linksys WaP54A Instant Wireless 802.11a Access Point

The Linksys WAP54A we tested was an early production unit. Its features and functionality--support for normal and turbo modes, WEP-based security and the ability to adjust transmission power--are similar to that of the NetGear HE102, except for few minor differences, such as online help. As you might suspect, Linksys' offering, like those from NetGear, SMC and Skyline, is geared toward a value-conscious customer and is probably not well-suited for enterprise deployment.

We found that the simple installation of the Linksys access point can't quite measure up to the NetGear H102's ease of use. We first had to configure a Windows client computer on the same network as the access point default network. Then, we had to enter the default IP address of the Linksys access point in the URL field of our browser to bring up the configuration and management page. The first thing that struck us was the product's lack of DHCP client capabilities, a feature available from NetGear. This issue may not be a major one in the SOHO market but is a very serious enterprise limitation. According to Linksys, DHCP support will be added in the next firmware upgrade.


802.11a Access Point FeaturesClick here to enlarge

The Linksys Web interface is relatively easy to use, and unlike NetGear, there's a good online help system. However, there seem to be some bugs. For example, even when we enabled turbo mode on this access point, the management interface displayed the same data rates available in normal mode.

The WAP54A didn't impress us with its management capabilities or feature set, and it finished at the back of the pack for range as well, with a maximum of 118 feet in one direction. The ping coverage showed up to 25 percent packet loss at spots C and E and up to 20 percent packet loss at spot F. At the remaining spots there was zero packet loss.

Linksys WAP54A Instant Wireless 802.11a Access Point, $349. Linksys, (800) 546-5797, (949) 261-1288. or [email protected] Proxim Skyline

While Harmony is targeted at enterprises, Proxim's Skyline is aimed at the small business market. Its performance was below average, and it needs quite a few features, such as online help and reset and power adjustment capabilities, before it can be a serious contender against the Linksys, SMC and NetGear products, which are better known in the retail channel.

Installation is done through a Web browser. The features are like those from the Linksys WAP54A and NetGear HE102. Unfortunately, like the HE102, the Skyline doesn't have an online help feature. In addition, there is no provision to reset the access point, a serious deficiency. Proxim also doesn't let you upgrade the firmware through the Web browser or adjust transmit power. Proxim plans to implement some of these features in the future, but the need to differentiate between Harmony and Skyline will likely condemn Skyline to also-ran status.

The biggest advantage of purchasing Skyline is that it is a value-priced product from a vendor that has been in WLANs since the earliest days. We'd expect you to get better support from Proxim than from one of the other value-oriented vendors that doesn't focus exclusively on wireless networks. The Skyline product was below average, but still acceptable, in throughput in both normal and turbo modes. However, the range was the most limited, and the ping coverage indicated up to 15 percent packet loss at spots B and E, up to 30 percent packet loss at spot C and up to 100 percent packet loss at spot F. At the remaining spots there was no packet loss.

Skyline 802.11a Access Point, $449. Proxim Corp., (800) 229-1630, (408) 731-2700.

Dave Molta is a senior technology editor of Network Computing. He is also an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and director of the Center for Emerging Network Technologies. Molta's experience includes 15 years in IT and network management. Satish Laxminarayanan is a research associate in the Center for Emerging Network Technologies. Send your comments on this article to them at [email protected] and [email protected]. If you're torn between deploying an 802.11b WLAN and waiting for 802.11a, we have good news and bad news. First, the good news: Although they fell short of 802.11b access points in range tests, the 802.11a access points we tested did better than expected, reaching 100 feet or more in many cases. And 802.11a is fast--while 11b systems hover at around 5.5 Mbps to 6 Mbps effective throughput, 11a access points zip along at 54 Mbps with a maximum throughput of around 24 Mbps. Many products also include proprietary turbo modes that boost performance to 72 Mbps or even 108 Mbps via channel aggregation. Finally, there's the matter of overcrowding: The 2.4-GHz 802.11b band supports only three nonoverlapping channels, and Bluetooth, cordless phones and microwave ovens can make for some hefty interference. In contrast, the FCC has allocated 802.11a 300 MHz in the 5-GHz band--enough to support eight nonoverlapping channels.

But, of course, there's a downside. The range issue cannot be taken lightly because it translates into more access points needed to cover a given area, a significant financial factor in large deployments. Also, the current crop of 802.11a devices offer no backward compatibility, though we expect that to change in 2G chipsets.

That said, we think many organizations plan to take the plunge, so we installed 802.11a access points from Intel Corp., Intermec Technologies Corp., Linksys, NetGear, Proxim Corp. and SMC Networks in our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. Our Editor's Choice award goes to Proxim for its Harmony 802.11a, which showed superior management capabilities and reached a range of 140 feet in our test environment, far exceeding its closest competitor. For SOHO deployments we like SMC's MC2755W and gave it our Best Value award. • "Sneak an AiroPeek at WLAN Stats" (Network Computing, May 27, 2002)

"Wireless LANs Make Enterprise Waves" (InternetWeek, Feb. 8, 2002)

• "WLAN Security on the Rise" (Network Computing, Feb. 4, 2002)


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