Setting up a wireless LAN can be as easy as sticking a plug into an outlet. But even technology-savvy customers are complaining that security can be a hassle due to problems with documentation and support.
While industry standards bodies are making strides to ensure that even consumer-level WLAN hardware is effective and secure, the user manuals that come with the hardware continue to leave a lot to be desired.
"The biggest challenge is inconsistent nomenclature and presentation of the basic components," said Christopher Bell, a software developer in Los Angeles whose home-office WLAN has included wireless routers from Linksys Inc. and Microsoft Corp. as well as myriad PC brands. "Repeatedly those types of differences are completely glossed over in both the interface and the documentation."
In his one experience calling a customer support line, "they could only read to me from the manual," Bell said. "It was worthless."
Another home networker noted general vagueness in the description of security protocols, from WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) to WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access).
"The explanations of when one might use WEP64 versus WEP128 versus WPA was lacking," said Greg Imbaro, a Boston-based engineer who uses a wireless router from Motorola Inc. "People dont understand channels. They dont understand key index. And I just had to keep going from secure to unsecure until something stuck."
Some observers propose that the same industry standards body that certifies Wi-Fi equipment with the Wi-Fi logo should certify user manuals, too.
"The Wi-Fi Alliance should require the proper documentation and easy-to-read instructions on how to properly secure a network," said Matthew Donovan, CEO of Seventh Compass Inc., a small-business consultancy , in Gainesville, Fla.
In fact, the WFA last year issued a best-practices terminology guide to encourage consistent, sensible security directions among vendors.
"They did discuss, Should we make these hard things or soft things?" said Frank Hanzlik, managing director for the WFA, in Dallas. "But, at the end of the day, they decided that the manufacturers would want to retain the rights for naming [terminology]."
A handful of hardware and software companies have introduced products designed to simplify WLAN security, but so far there are no standards. Hanzlik said, though, that the WFA has what it calls an ease-of-use task group and that guidelines for the products are on the horizon.
In the meantime, service organizations are starting to count small-business WLAN implementation among their services.
Hewlett-Packard Co. earlier this month began offering a WLAN assessment, installation and startup service for small businesses; three service levels are available for networks of one, five and 10 access points, each including up to three clients. Donovans Seventh Compass recently started offering WLAN services as well. "An unsecured network in a home provides the ability for identity thieves to steal identities even easier, and an unsecured network in a small business could put that business in financial ruin," Donovan said.
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