WiFi compatibility gets worse, not better, admits WiFi Alliance

by Guy Kewney | posted on 25 March 2004

Recently, the UK Consumers Association upset the WiFi wireless networking world by saying that two different makers were unable to inter-operate. It was seen as a one-off. But it seems, not so.

Guy Kewney

According to an Associated press report carried in the WiFi Alliance has now publicly admitted that there is a problem.

The original report of incompatibility focused simply on a Netgear wireless bridge, which the supplier effectively admitted was faulty in design.

But now, working network administrators have been complaining that it is often hard to make a WLAN secure unless all the equipment is from the same supplier, because the standard security models have been extended, changed, and even rendered obsolete by new developments.

One admin worker said: "We've recently discovered that the length of the security key is crucial for inter-working between varieties of WiFi gear. Some parts simply won't accept more than a 40-bit key; others require it in Ascii, others in HEX."

Another sysadmin said: "It's also the case that the same identical make of cards, one in a Windows XP machine and the other in a Windows ME machine, can be almost impossible to configure so that they work properly together."

At the CeBIT trade show in Hannover, WiFi Alliance spokesman Brian Grimm said "About 22 percent of the devices — such as wireless networking cards for computers, access ports and printer servers — submitted for testing at four partner laboratories failed to work on a network on the first try," according to the AP report.

Grimm said increasing complexity and stronger security was causing the problems.

"As equipment becomes more advanced, we're actually seeing interoperability failures go up," said Grimm.

The public perception of this remains low, mostly because home users rarely bother to turn security on, in WiFi. Also, many of the thousands of public WiFi hotspots have no security built into the wireless transceivers at all, being set up as open points to make logging in simpler. Security - if there is any - is managed from the server which connects the WLAN to the internet.

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