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Panelists dismiss WLAN health concerns

Experts at Comdex reaffirmed that health concerns are a non issue with wireless LANs, and that cheaper, better chipsets and advances in security standards coming in 2004 will only increase 802.11's popularity in the enterprise.

LAS VEGAS -- According to experts who spoke Tuesday at Comdex Las Vegas 2003, wireless LAN technology will make important strides in 2004, despite concerns that widespread usage of radio frequency devices could have as-yet unknown health implications.

During a panel discussion moderated by Craig Mathias, principal with the Farpoint Group consulting firm, conversation focused on upcoming chip sets and security standards, but the audience was quick to question the panel on the safety of 802.11 technologies.

Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance industry group, said there is no evidence suggesting that wireless LANs are dangerous.

"Safety is important to all users," Hanzlik said. "There's no reason to believe that there are any health issues today."

Hanzlik said the Wi-Fi Alliance is committed to a proactive health stance, having pledged to work with vendors and with the Mobile Management Forum on research initiatives, as well as to quickly address concerns of the public as they arise.

"The fact is, all wireless LANs operate at a fraction of the power of cellular phones, and you don't hold your laptop up to your head," said panelist Sheung Li, product marketing director with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Atheros Communications Inc.

The safety of cellular phones that utilize third-generation (3G) technology was called into question recently by a study out of the Netherlands, which suggested that the use of such devices could cause physical illness. The mobile phone industry downplayed the findings, citing the need for more in-depth research.

Regardless, panelists were largely enthusiastic about the future of wireless LANs. Mathias said 802.11 has arguably been the IEEE's most successful standard to date, though he said he was surprised that 802.11g is more widely used in the enterprise than 802.11a.

Even though 802.11a utilizes 12 non-overlapping channels and thus is less prone to interference, Broadcom panelist David Cohen said enterprises like 802.11g because of its speed (up to 54 Mbps) and its backward compatibility with 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, which was the first wireless LAN technology that took hold in the enterprise.

"[802.11]a is absolutely the way the enterprise will go" next year, said Carl Temme, director of marketing for Airgo Networks Inc. "There just aren't enough channels to support a broad-scale rollout," specifically for companies using bandwidth-intensive applications, he said.

Li said that a number of vendors early next year will offer hybrid 24-channel wireless LAN products that support 802.11a, b and g, meaning companies will be able to switch technologies without completely replacing products.

Still, Cohen said, the rapid development of hybrid products has resulted in the price of traditional 802.11b products being "much cheaper than we thought they'd be" at this point. He said 802.11b products could remain popular for some time because, for many companies, its 11 Mbps throughput is sufficient, and the low price points will be impossible to resist.

Panelists also expressed enthusiasm about upcoming wireless LAN security improvements. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), a subset of the upcoming 802.11i security standard, replaced the flawed Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP).

Even though panelist Merwyn Andrade, CTO of Aruba Wireless Networks, called WPA a "Band-Aid" because it lacks a strong security protocol that deals with more than just encryption, Cohen said WPA will soon be augmented by the rest of the 802.11i standard, which will include the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

"[With WPA], the industry worked hard to take a near-term security solution to market that addressed nearly all of WEP's flaws," Cohen said. On a scale of 1 to 10, "if WEP was a 1 or a 2, then WPA is an 8."

Attendee Robert Dodson, associate director of educational technology for the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said officials at his school would like to deploy a wireless LAN to increase productivity, but he isn't convinced that security protocols are capable of keeping the organization's data secure.


Learn more about AES in our glossary.

Read more stories by News Editor Eric B. Parizo.

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