ISO Rejects China's WLAN Standard, Adopts 802.11i

The standards body rejects a Chinese proposal for a secure wireless networking standard in favor of the IEEE 802.11i standard, citing a perceived lack of openness in the Chinese proposal's security protocols as a major source of concern among voters.

Mike Clendenin, Contributor

March 12, 2006

4 Min Read

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) overwhelmingly rejected China’s domestic wireless LAN technology as an international standard, deciding instead to approve IEEE 802.11i as the basis for a more secure wireless protocol.

Only 22 percent of ISO’s members supported China’s Wired Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI), while 86 percent favored 802.11i, according to documents obtained by EE Times. The voting wrapped up last Tuesday, but ISO doesn’t plan to make the results public until next week.

China submitted its revamped WAPI proposal for fast-track balloting, alongside 802.11i, in October. Although eagerly awaited, the results are not surprising. The IEEE’s standard is well-established in the market and was created through an open process.

In comments attached to their votes, some ISO members said they were concerned that WAPI’s development process was relatively closed and that some of the underlying technology, such as security algorithms, has not been disclosed. There was also concern about WAPI’s apparent incompatibility with 802.11i and its predecessors.

Despite the rejection, this might not be the end of the road for WAPI. Many ISO members expressed a desire to see a “harmonization” between the standards. Yet it was clear that 802.11i would be the foundation of any such attempt.

“We believe that elements of 1N7904 (WAPI) provide mechanisms that are potentially valuable additions to ISO/IEC 8802-11 and other standards in the future. … We do not therefore consider that while voting approval for 1N7903 (802.11i ) it is not seen as the final step in the journey. There will always be a need for improved security mechanisms to provide new features and defend against new threats,” said the New Zealand national standards body.

In other comments, some ISO members also noted the intense lobbying they were subjected to during the five-month balloting process. During that period, the IEEE 802.11 Working Group released detailed arguments against WAPI, which spurred angry responses from the Chinese national standards body and worsened tensions between the groups.

A hint about whether the two sides can work together to include some of WAPI’s technology into an ISO standard should come in June when ISO members meet in Prague to discuss the results of the ballot. In a statement released to EE Times, IEEE said it “remains committed to supporting the international standards process and maintains its offer to work with China to harmonize the WAPI technology with existing IEEE and international standards.”

Whatever happens, China has signaled its intention to keep WAPI alive. As ISO members were wrapping up voting last week, China re-ignited its campaign to establish the domestic wireless LAN technology that it claims is more secure than the 802.11i standard.

Earlier this week, China’s Ministry of Information Industry backed the establishment of the Wired Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure Industrial Union, which consists of 22 members, including Lenovo, Huawei and Beijing Founder Electronics, as well as China’s big four telecom operators.

At the practical level, it will be difficult for the union to build enough momentum behind WAPI so that it eclipses the 802.11 standard, which is entrenched in the marketplace and a critical component of the notebooks that PC makers such as Lenovo sell.

However, China is gradually increasing its effort to create domestic electronics standards, which can not only help foster domestic companies but, due to the enormous size of China, such standards have the potential to go international and launch Chinese companies as global players. This strategy was effectively played by the European Union in the 1980s with its GSM mobile communications standard, which helped launch Ericsson and Nokia to global significance.

Some longtime WAPI watchers were skeptical of the latest push and suspect that WAPI will remain a niche technology applied in government institutions where homegrown security technology will make officials more comfortable.

“Better security for government groups is good, and this is one way to do that. But, ultimately, open standards will win” in the wider marketplace, said Duncan Clark, a principal analyst with BDA Research in Beijing.

It’s been nearly two years since U.S. officials met with China's Vice Premier Wu Yi to defuse a dust-up in trade relations linked to the Chinese proposal to mandate adoption of WAPI. Foreign companies, such as Intel Corp., rallied stiff opposition to the proposal, upset at the possibility of being forced to implement the standard and angry that the IP was restricted to Chinese companies and therefore obligated foreign companies to form partnerships with local firms.

There has been no indication yet from Chinese officials that this latest push will lead to a mandate.

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