Wireless Systems Design

Wi-Fi Spreads Everywhere But China

While Wi-Fi-enabled networks and devices may have taken much of the world by storm, China remains unaffected. In fact, the Chinese government recently announced that only its version of the IEEE 802.11 standard will be allowed in China. Furthermore, solely Chinese companies can license such products. Foreign vendors will be allowed to manufacture Chinese Wi-Fi products, but only in co-production with a Chinese company. In addition, it appears that foreign vendors must pay their partners to integrate the Chinese standard into their products. In contrast, Chinese companies get the license for free.

Aside from its economic challenges, the Chinese WLAN standard seems remarkably similar to the IEEE's 802.11 specification. The one crucial difference is the security protocol, which is called WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI). This security protocol is mandated in China's WLAN standard, dubbed GB15629.11-2003. Currently, the global 802.11 standard relies on the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption scheme.

The Chinese concern for current 802.11 security is not unwarranted. WEP can easily be broken. This flaw has prompted the creation of 802.11i—a newer, more robust IEEE standard. Until this standard is approved, the Wi-Fi Alliance has encouraged equipment vendors to adopt an improved security technology called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). To ensure a smooth migration to the 802.11i security standard, WPA has been designed to be forward compatible with 802.11i.

To foster a good working relationship with the Chinese government, the IEEE has offered to meet with appropriate representatives. The proposed meeting is scheduled for May 2004. It will coincide with the IEEE 802.16 Working Group on Broadband Wireless Access.

Many observers feel that customers would be the real losers if no middle ground can be reached between the IEEE and the Chinese representatives. WLAN vendors would be forced to make products that support both standards. That additional cost would then be passed on to the consumers.

On a positive note, the IEEE has expressed optimism that an agreement can be reached. It also believes that the WAPI standard can be supported as an amendment to the global 802.11i standard. For more information, go to http://standards.ieee.org/wireless.

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