WiFi Interoperability Can't Be Assumed

Labs Analysis: As 802.11n makes its way onto new smartphones and tablets, wireless administrators should stay skeptical about interoperability.

802.11n is booming in popularity. The WLAN standard earlier in September celebrated its first anniversary since IEEE ratification, and the technology is popping up in new types of devices all the time. But interoperability of all these devices shouldn't be assumed.

Chris Kozup, Cisco Systems' senior manager of mobility solutions marketing, recently told me that investment in wireless networking is rising to top of the enterprise must-have checklist in all key verticals, and that the average enterprise employee typically is armed with two to three WiFi radios while college students may have five or six. He pointed to this proliferation of devices outfitted with 802.11n radios as a primary driver for enterprise adoption of the technology, quoting a recent ABI Research prediction that 7 billion new 802.11n devices will flood the market by 2015.

eWEEK Labs has seen this prediction move closer toward reality this year, as we've tested numerous devices newly outfitted with 802.11n radios, albeit most supporting only 2.4GHz 802.11n due to cost and power usage considerations. Apple's iPad and iPhone 4, Motorola's Droid X, and the BlackBerry Torch 9800 are a sampling of new 802.11n-enabled devices likely to be connected to enterprise WiFi networks.

Of course, with so many new 802.11n devices pouring into the market and onto the enterprise network, users and network administrators alike may be taking the WiFi interoperability of these devices for granted. However, I fear that expectation ignores reality in some cases.

Most of the devices I listed above have received WiFi interoperability certification from the WiFi Alliance-but not all. When I tested the Motorola Droid X/A955 earlier this summer, I encountered WiFi connectivity difficulties with certain infrastructures. A subsequent firmware release solved my specific problems, and I assumed WiFi certification would follow shortly. But digging through the online database of certified devices recently revealed that certification hasn't happened yet.

In a way, the smartphone marketplace is starting to remind me of Hollywood blockbuster movies. If a device doesn't have big launch (opening weekend), it's immediately pegged a failure. Our collective interest flits from one device to another, as the next big thing hits the market a week or two later from some other maker, on some other carrier. With so many devices hitting the market, many with short periods of desirability in front of them, I wonder whether manufacturers' desire to get WiFi certification will weaken over time.

Device makers aren't abandoning certification yet. A quick scan shows that the HTC EVO (PC36100), iPad, iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch 9800 all received their WiFi certification around the time they were launched. But what about products that don't pass the tests in time for launch? Will Motorola go back and try again with the Droid X, if the company is already focused more on promoting its next release? Will HTC follow through to certify the Droid Incredible (PC31200) months after that release?

Enterprise administrators shouldn't count on it. Because the term "WiFi" has been co-opted as a synonym for IEEE 802.11 products, rather than being used to mean proven and certified compatibility with that standard as originally intended, administrators should not assume "WiFi" equals interoperability for their networks. In fact, I'd recommend that administrators check the certification database often before allowing new devices onto their WLANs as part of the consideration and vetting process.

The effect of these new devices on the corporate WLAN remains to be seen. We've seen few examples of network problems that are directly attributable to one type of device, but the problems uncertified devices cause could be insidious rather than obvious. I'm keenly interested in the effects of these consumer devices as they are granted admission to the corporate WLAN, and eWEEK Labs is working closely with testing vendors to identify the impact popular devices may have on corporate WLANs' operation and performance.

Stay tuned.