Wi-Fi Improvements in the Works

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SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA -- New wireless standards intended to enhance security and support high-bandwidth applications are in the works and will appear in products by the end of next year, say industry analysts at the Wi-Fi Planet Conference and Expo here this week.

The new 802.11e standard is designed to improve quality of service for voice calls, high-resolution video, and other demanding applications. The 802.11i security specification is based on the Advanced Encryption Standard. Both are scheduled to be finalized and published by next summer, say IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance officials here.

The new protocols differ from existing wireless protocols, including the 802.11a, 11b, and 11g standards, because they enhance their predecessors rather than specify a transmission speed and radio frequency. The new specifications will be implemented in chip sets and could appear in products as soon as the 2004 holiday season, says Stuart Kerry, who chairs the IEEE 802.11 Working Group and who moderated a "State of the Standards" session at Wi-Fi Planet.

Setting App Priorities

Data traveling over a wireless network isn't as susceptible to the network's connection hiccups as a telephone conversation or a stream of video is. The 802.11e standard is intended to allow certain types of wireless network traffic to take priority over others to ensure that IP phone conversations and video sound and look as good over wireless connections as they do over wires.

Consumer video servers, set-top boxes, and televisions complying with 802.11e could become available in the fourth quarter of 2004, says Bruce Sanguinetti, president and CEO of wireless chip set maker Bermai. He spoke at a session here entitled "Multimedia Over Wi-Fi."

Interoperability will be a big question mark at first, even with the Wi-Fi Alliance working to certify products for 801.11e compliance, Sanguinetti and other session speakers noted. They expect that consumer electronics vendors will focus on point-to-point connectivity with their own equipment.

Another challenge to interoperability is the proposed standard's support for two different methods of interacting with access points. The Wireless Multimedia Extensions were originally intended as an interim technique to distinguish low-priority and high-priority traffic. WME will now be part of the IEEE's 802.11e specification. So will the more advanced Wi-Fi Scheduled Multimedia, which uses sophisticated "polled access" to reserve connection time and bandwidth for high-demand applications.

Boosting Security

The upcoming 802.11i specification will address the weaknesses of the Wireless Encryption Protocol used in the original 802.11a, 11b, and 11g specifications.

In the interim, the Wi-Fi Alliance has developed and released the Wi-Fi Protected Access encryption standard as a stop-gap measure. The group considers WPA a subset of 802.11i, says Greg Ennis, technical director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Ennis expects that the new specification will maintain backward compatibility, although doing so won't be easy as wireless standards continue to proliferate and morph. "It's a real challenge for us to maintain the level of interoperability that we've had in the past," he says.

Farther down the road for 802.11 is a speed boost to 108 megabits per second, and possibly to as high as 320 mbps. The source of the speed will be the 802.11n standard, which is at least two years away.

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