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Wireless standards update

Today's hot topic -- wireless technologies. With all the new technologies, security concerns and hot spots popping up all over, it's time to take look at wireless landscape.

Today's hot topic in networking most definitely is wireless technologies. With all the new technologies, security concerns and hot spots popping up all over the globe, it seems to be a good idea to look at wireless technology standards. Not long ago a hot spot was a wonderful vacation place, today it is another means of connectivity, albeit unbounded. The IEEE has several divisions dealing with wireless communications:

  • 802.11 - Wireless LAN Working Group (WLAN)
  • 802.15 - Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN) Group including Bluetooth
  • 802.16 - Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) Working Group studying WMAN
  • 802.18 - Radio Regulatory TAG
  • 802.19 - Coexistence TAG
  • 802.20 - Mobile Broadband Wireless Access (MBWA) Working Group
  • 802.21 - A new group to study Media Independent Handoff
There are other standards bodies working on wireless protocols outside of the United States. Each wireless device is both a radio (transmits signals) and an antenna (receives signals). As these signals pass through the air as radio waves, they are bound only by the spectrum in which they operate. Much like when you turn your radio dial to a radio station, each antenna and radio must broadcast within the specified frequency range in order to be heard by the receiving device.

In the U.S., the FCC controls frequencies. Other countries have their counterparts as well. There are two types of frequency broadcasts: protected and unlicensed. This chart shows the frequency allocations in the U.S. There are three types of unlicensed RF generating devices that fall under the FCC rules (Part 15). These include:

  • Intentional Radiators - devices that intentionally generate and emit RF energy by radiation or induction (cell phones, remote control toys, garage door openers, business and commercial applications including business networks, etc.).
  • Unintentional Radiators - generate RF energy within the device that is not intended to leak out of the device (PC's, printers, disk drives, VCRs, radio and TV receivers)
  • Incidental radiators - create RF energy as a byproduct of operation but not for the purpose of emission (motors, copy machines, light switches, etc.)

The Synergy Research Group recently predicted that there will be 21 million Americans using wireless LAN devices by 2007. By 2004, it is estimated that 45 million business laptop computers will use the Wi-Fi standard. Worldwide estimates project that by 2007 there will be over 90 million Wi-Fi enabled devices worldwide with over 40 million people roaming in Wi-Fi hot spots. (Elizabeth Mooney, RCR Wireless News, April 22, 2002, at 20.)

Wireless voice technologies are also maturing. These devices allow for VoIP over WLANs and for wireless headsets communicating with VoIP phones. The new standard -- 802.11e -- is not due until sometime later this year. But as with all standards, when the draft becomes available, technology becomes available right behind it. This is due in part to the long cycle it takes to have a standard ratified and published. As an 802.11 based standard, the same rules apply for interference.

Another problem you must be aware of is 'war chalking.' This is the practice of traveling city streets and placing a chalk mark on the sidewalks of open access points. While placing chalk marks on sidewalks may not be illegal, this is providing potential hackers with a blueprint to a city for eavesdropping and access jumping or places to attach to devices paid for by others. This applies not only to hot spots, which are becoming increasingly popular in airports and restaurants, but also applies to businesses who may not have locked down their wireless devices to eliminate this risk.

A brief word about security -- if you don't know how to apply it, don't implement wireless. It is estimated that 80% of identity theft in this country will be from wireless networks. Hackers can travel neighborhoods with several packages readily available and can not only access your network, but if not properly protected, all online banking information, credit card numbers, passwords, etc. The 802.11b standard provides a mechanism called WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy). This mechanism provides for an encrypted key to be exchanged between the PC card and the access point. While not perfect, it does provide for some level of security. This key can be changed as often as necessary, bearing in mind that access points advertise services and PC cards scan for the services. This is different than a wired network. In a wired network, users must first have a connection or access. In a wireless network, one could actually sit outside of a window and obtain access to the network with a simple card if the network is not secured. Many SOHO networks today use wireless networking. Neighbors can log on to your network services and consume your bandwidth if the administrator is not careful.

Changing your network name and SSID (Service Station Identifier) and manually administering the MAC (Media Access Control) addresses that can attach to your network will close your network to unwanted trespassers. But because it is a broadcast environment, this may not provide a level of protection that is satisfactory to corporate users. Any network should be protected above and beyond these simple security measures.

Carrie Higbie, Global Network Applications Market Manager, The Siemon Company
Carrie has been involved in the computing and networking industries for nearly 20 years. She has worked with manufacturing firms, medical institutions, casinos, healthcare providers, cable and wireless providers and a wide variety of other industries in both networking design/implementation, project management and software development for privately held consulting firms and most recently Network and Software Solutions.

Carrie currently works with The Siemon Company where her responsibilities include providing liaison services to electronic manufacturers to assure that there is harmony between the active electronics and existing and future cabling infrastructures. She participates with the IEEE, TIA and various consortiums for standards acceptance and works to further educate the end user community on the importance of a quality infrastructure. Carrie currently holds an RCDD/LAN Specialist from BICSI, MCNE from Novell and several other certifications.

This was last published in March 2004

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