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WAPI battle exposes technology rifts with China

Posted: 22 Mar 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Mike Clendenin? International Organization for Standardization? ISO?

Standards battles are usually black-and-blue affairs. But few have risen to the level of rancor surrounding the clash between the IEEE's 802.11i standard and China's domestic wireless-LAN standard, called WAPI.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recently confirmed that its members have overwhelmingly rejected the Chinese technology as a global standard, deciding instead to approve 802.11i as a candidate for a more-secure wireless protocol. The outcome came as no surprise, given the popularity of the 802.11 technology. Moreover, the Chinese hamstrung their candidate by declining to reveal the underlying encryption algorithms.

In comments attached to their votes, some ISO members expressed concerns about WAPI's incompatibility with the well-established 802.11 protocol and noted that WAPI's development process was relatively closed.

ISO's decision pretty much spells the end for China's hopes of making WAPI an international standard, although the specification will probably find some limited success within Chinese government agencies and the military. When ISO members meet this summer to review the results, WAPI backers promise they will make a last-ditch effort to appeal the decision, based on what they believe was a dirty-tricks campaign waged by IEEE after the voting process began in October. What angered China was the last-minute lobbying by the IEEE 802.11 Working Groupin particular, a letter written in November that sought to highlight the alleged deficiencies of WAPI.

The China Broadband Wireless Internet Protocol Standard Group (BWIPS), which oversees the development of WAPI, accused IEEE of using "deception, misinformation [and] confusion" during the voting process, "thus seriously violating the ISO/IEC code of ethics and procedural rules and principles, and creating an unfair ballot environment dominated by prejudice and discrimination." IEEE declined to rebut those allegations directly.

Instead, in a statement released to EE Times, Steven Mills, IEEE's standards board chairman, said the group "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."

BWIPS ruled out recently IEEE's offer as a "hypocritical proposal"in its opinion, using a good technology (WAPI) to patch up a bad one. "Achieving global interoperability" would be a primary goal of a harmonization effort, said IEEE's Mills, and that's a concern others in the industry have voiced as well.

WAPI blindsides industry
WAPI emerged from a small startup known as IWNCOMM Co. Ltd, a semiconductor spin-off of Xidian University's National Key Lab for ISDN Theory and Key Technology. Some observers believe the company has close ties with military and security forces, based upon a survey of its backers, whose public backgrounds don't suggest they would have the capital to back a startup. But this has not been proven.

When WAPI was officially introduced in December 2003, it caught the industry off guard. The stage was set for a showdown when China suggested it might mandate WAPI for all Wi-Fi systems sold in China, while restricting access to the encryption technology to about two dozen Chinese companies. That would have forced foreign vendors like Intel to collaborate with those firms, creating a windfall in royalties for chip maker IWNCOMM. But by April 2004, after staunch resistance from industry and the U.S. government, China backed away from making WAPI mandatory in order to avert a clash with Washington at the World Trade Organization.

But WAPI wasn't dead. Through the Standardization Administration of China (SAC), BWIPS put the specification up for consideration at an ISO meeting in Orlando, Florida, in November 2004. At the same meeting, IEEE's 802.11i was also submitted.

At a subsequent ISO gathering in February 2005, the Chinese delegation walked out of the meeting and returned home after organizers removed WAPI from fast-track consideration because of a procedural issue. The move sparked a nationalistic media maelstrom back in China, with SAC representatives accusing the ISO of favoring the 802.11i proposal.

Cooler heads prevailed at a meeting a couple of months later in Geneva. ISO members agreed that WAPI should be elevated for fast-track consideration alongside 802.11i. Soon after, in October, WAPI squared off against 802.11i in ISO voting. During this whole time, the 802.11 Wi-Fi technology was continuing to gain in popularity. And few observers thought WAPI would never be more than a niche application, even if approved by ISO. The debate began to turn instead toward whether Chinese frustration would have a lasting negative impact on its standards efforts.

- Mike Clendenin
EE Times

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