New Wireless Standard From IEEE, Same IT Issues

802.16a strengthens WirelessMAN air interfaces, but interoperability and security questions remain.

Broadband wireless access took another step forward late last month when the IEEE approved 802.16a, an amendment that adds features to the groups 802.16 standard that defines the WirelessMAN air interface specification.

802.16 was developed by the IEEEs 802.16 Working Group on BWA (Broadband Wireless Access) to address the need for broadband connection solutions that are more economical than wired alternatives. The working group completed the BWA standard in October 2001 and published it in April.

BWA can provide more capacity than its wired broadband counterparts (cable and digital subscriber line) because it allows companies access to fiber-optic telecommunications networks using wireless connections, instead of building out the network using cables.

The most appealing aspect of the BWA technology is its ability to quickly expand a broadband network to customer sites that a conventional fiber network cant reach. It works by leveraging installed high-speed optical networks, combined with radio base stations mounted on buildings or towers.

However, as with 802.11 WLAN (wireless LAN) standards, interoperability and security should be very much on the minds of IT managers thinking of deploying products using this standard in the future. (See eWEEK Labs recent wireless security package for more about the state of wireless standards and securing WLANs.)

BWA solutions have been around for about two years, but the lack of a universal standard has limited their use. For developing countries and remote areas where wired infrastructures might be limited, the 802.16 standard for BWA will be important because it will allow conforming products to link multiple sites to high-speed optical backbones.

In wired settings, the 802.16 standard could foster BWA systems use as tools to link disparate fiber-optic telecom networks. By contrast, extending these high-speed, high-capacity networks using conventional cable technologies is often time-consuming and costly.

The IEEEs 802.16 WirelessMAN (Wireless Metropolitan Area Network) standard allows users inside buildings to connect using standard wired (Ethernet) networks or any 802.11 wireless networks. The design of the standard will eventually allow vendors to extend WirelessMAN protocols directly to the user machine.

The standard addresses frequencies from 10GHz to 66GHz, but the 802.16a iteration will allow devices within the 802.16 standard to support a lower-frequency range—in the 2GHz-to-11GHz band—and offer less expensive services to consumers. The Federal Communications Commission-licensed, lower-frequency spectra will result in lower data rates, making the services more likely to target homes or small-to-midsize enterprises. The potential for interference with other equipment should be small, but the risk is still unknown because 802.16-compliant products have not been released.

802.16 includes measures for privacy and encryption: authentication with X.509 certificates and data encryption using Data Encryption Standard in cipher block chaining mode with hooks defined for stronger algorithms such as Advanced Encryption Standard.

Technical Analyst Francis Chu can be contacted at