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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Atheros On WAPI, 802.11n & Standards - Expect More Miniaturisation

Glenn Fleishman provides an excellent overview of Atheros advances in WAPI and 802.11N. Excerpts with edits:

Atheros recently announced that they would be the Wi-Fi chip supplier for Lenovo, the Chinese firm that plans to take over IBM’s personal computer division and gives Atheros a foothold in a new market. But this relationship brings to focus the WAPI (WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure) debate last year in which China was about to require this proprietary and closed security standard in all domestically sold Wi-Fi adapters and equipment, which alarmed US. The objections to WAPI stemmed from its closed nature:
- Many in the encryption world believe that closed crypto is made to be broken because it cannot be tested in a robust fashion.
- It’s also extremely easy to provide back doors, which can be used for government monitoring as well as being themselves weak points of entry. The U.S. government wanted explicit backdoors in encryption in the 1990s; there’s no reason China wouldn’t want that right now
Atheros’s Sheung Li, their product line manager, clarifies a few points on this:about both the WAPI standard and the progress in Task Group N (802.11n), the high throughput standard underway at IEEE as a successor to 802.11g.
- First, WAPI isn't dead, but rather is an optional requirement for domestic gear. China may choose, for instance, to require hotspots to use WAPI-which includes authentication elements such as are found in 802.1X - but individual users and buyers aren't being forced to use it versus, say, WEP or WPA.
- Second, the Lenovo deal is largely about export, and Atheros isn't required to implement WAPI as part of it. Li pointed out that China has submitted WAPI to the ISO, an international standards body, and it's possible that they will open the specification to examination as part of that process, although that's not required nor guaranteed
Li made a rejoinder to the issues around back doors in WAPI by pointing out that the AES standard that is part of the higher strength encryption available in WPA2 in the near future has been approved by the NSA. This makes some in China nervous, as it may indicate that the NSA has the ability to break weaker AES keys. In fact, various analyses around the Internet support this concern in part: there are several key lengths for AES, and the NSA doesn't give the shortest key very enthusiastic support as it does for two longer versions. This is clearly some of the thinking that has led the Chinese government to develop its own standards for many technologies.

802.11n and TGn Sync: Atheros is part of the TGn Sync proposal group at the IEEE 802.11 Task Group N and before the most recent meeting, Qualcomm dropped its separate proposal and joined TGn Sync, while the Motorola proposal was taken off the table as well. This leaves WWiSE-arch rival Broadcom, Texas Instruments, and several other firms-contending with TGn Sync. Finally, Li noted that 802.11n has a strange advantage that hasn't been mentioned: the faster a wireless networking standard operates, the less power it uses because the radio is active for less overall time. "Higher speeds mean lower battery usage," Li said. This might allow 802.11n to find its way into ever smaller devices because of power improvements.

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