Welcome to the Wireless Backwater

By eweek  |  Posted 2002-02-04

When the world gathers later this week in Salt Lake City for the opening of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, visitors from all over the world will get a taste of American spirit, hospitality and athletic prowess. Unfortunately, theyll also be forced to experience something else: the sadly disheveled state of wireless communications in this country.

The experience will undoubtedly come as quite a shock to visitors from European and Asian countries long accustomed to being able to use their wireless phones to make calls even as they cross borders and to take advantage of nearly universal wireless features such as Short Message Service. For that they can thank their local wireless carriers and regulators that, aware of users need for continuous access to consistent wireless services as they travel from country to country, collaborated to produce the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard now used throughout Europe. Now carriers in Europe and Asia are building on that standard to get a jump on rolling out third-generation wireless services such as video and other types of streaming media.

In the United States, however, visitors will find no use for their GSM phones. Instead, theyll find a hodgepodge of isolated wireless networks using different protocols and standards.

The state of WLANs (wireless LANs) isnt much better. At the Olympics, in fact, visitors to official venues who expect to be able to tie in to WLANs to retrieve event, scoring or other information will be disappointed. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee and its IT consultants recently decided not to deploy WLANs because of security concerns. The SLOC determined that the Wireless Equivalent Privacy encryption algorithm built into the 802.11 standard leaves too many holes for hackers. Given its responsibility to protect athletes, spectators and others associated with the highly visible Games, the committee made the right decisions, and its one being mirrored at many security-conscious enterprises today.

Unfortunately, theres much more at stake here than embarrassment. Wireless technologies have the potential to enable new information-intensive businesses and to jump-start an IT industry sorely in need of stimulation. But that wont happen until wireless carriers focus more on serving consumers than on protecting their customer bases, until federal regulators take a more active role in driving wireless standards and until equipment vendors do a better job of building security into wireless infrastructure from the ground up.

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