A New WAPI – WIFI Standards War Looms

Two years ago, a standards war between Wi-Fi and a Chinese standard, WAPI, was averted - but only an interim compromise had been reached. After a number of recent warning signals, it now appears that the truce is over.

Last week (on March 7) a vote on whether or not to adopt WAPI – the Chinese challenger to Wi-Fi – was taken in Geneva, Switzerland under the auspices of ISO. The results of that vote are not yet public, but the impact of the decision will be great, regardless of which way the ballots fall. The reason (as usual, when a standards war threatens to break out) is because the stakes are high, and the sides are entrenched.

The press only returned to the WAPI-WiFi controversy last week, but in fact there have been significant tremors over the past several months that have suggested that things were destined to become progressively interesting.

For example: Back on January 9 of this year I wrote an entry titled Emerging Giant – Reemerging Issue. That post began as follows:

A major international standards dispute that most have forgotten may be beginning to rumble again. That issue is the effort by China to promote its own wireless standard in preference to the globally IEEE 802.11 family of Wi-Fi wireless standards that is in use in most parts of the world, and that is vigorously promoted by Western chip makers such as Intel and Texas Instruments. The impetus for that observation was an article in China Daily that reported that the Chinese government would begin to push the WAPI standard for use by government agencies with security concerns. Two days later, I noted (and reported) on another interesting development: the China would loosen the constraints on foreign vendors licensing the WAPI technology. Previously, only a small number of domestic manufacturers were to be licensed to make WAPI-enabled devices, leading to much of the opposition abroad.

Since then, Chinese government agencies have signaled both their increasing determination to push WAPI as a global standard, as well as made accusations that the process under which the choice between Wi-Fi and WAPI within ISO (acting through the IEEE) has been biased against it.

The dispute has a long history, which you can review briefly in the January 9 post noted above, or at greater length in the April 2005 issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin. But for current purposes, suffice it to say that a crisis was averted two years ago that left the Chinese feeling both slighted as well as economically disadvantaged, and with only a temporary, rather than a permanent compromise in place. Now the crisis is reemerging.

From the Western perspective, Wi-Fi has already become a global standard (as measured by adoption). But from the public pronouncements of the Chinese government, Wi-Fi has security issues that make it unacceptable, as well as royalty costs that make it unattractive to Chinese vendors.

The event that finally jolted public awareness that the issue was more than simmering was not the taking of the ISO vote, but the announcement the day that a new WAPI Alliance had been formed in China to push implementation of the standard. As reported at ShanghaiDaily.com:

A TOTAL of 22 Chinese companies established a WAPI alliance on Tuesday, a move to revive a project, shelved two years ago, to make the homegrown wireless local area network, or WLAN, standard compulsory nationwide. The alliance’s setup is a blow to the US-developed WiFi, which currently dominates the Chinese WLAN market and it may influence several millions of laptop computer users in China, industry insiders said.

The alliance’s members include four major telecom operators, China Telecom, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Netcom, computer makers Lenovo and Founder, chip designers China IWNCOMM Co and Beijing LHWT Microelectronics Inc.

“It is a clear signal China will revive the project as telecom giants have joined the industry,” said Li Ke, an analyst at Beijing-based CCID Consulting Co, a research firm under the Ministry of Information Industry.

Why this, and why now? In part, because China may fear that the vote would go against WAPI within ISO, and also because China has asserted that the IEEE committee that has been considering WiFi and WAPI has been biased, identifying Intel as the particular agent provocateur subverting the process. As reported in the Netherlands, at ComputerPartner.nl:

Resistance to incorporating WAPI into an international WLAN standard appears to have hardened in recent months with continued secrecy surrounding WAPI’s encryption algorithm among the issues of greatest concern.

“The use of an undisclosed algorithm makes it impossible to evaluate the effective security of the proposed international WLAN standard,” IEEE’s 802.11 Working Group said in a document. That document called for WAPI to be removed from consideration as part of an ISO standard.

Other factors contributed to IEEE’s call to remove WAPI from consideration. “Attempts over the last two years by non-Chinese companies to procure any version of a WAPI device have failed,” the document said.

The same story provides evidence of the emotions that are finding voice in the context of the latest events:

[F]eelings are running high over WAPI’s treatment in the international standards process. At the launch of the WAPI Industry Union, supporters lashed out at Western opposition to the technology’s adoption, singling out Intel, which dominates the market for WLAN chips through its popular Centrino notebook package.

“Intel’s WLAN standard is garbage,” said Cao Jun, general manager of IWNCOMM Co. Ltd., the company that developed the technology behind WAPI, quoted in a Chinese newspaper report. In another report, Cao accused Intel of engaging in backroom maneuvers to prevent a vote on WAPI’s inclusion as part of an international WLAN standard.

How seriously should the Chinese initiative be taken? Let’s look at an excerpt from one more Chinese Website, CRIEnglish.com, hosted by ChinaBroadcast.com. In an article called Nation Pushes Forward Own Encryption Standard, an interesting additional fact appears: Some foreign technology vendors are also expected to join the group. US-based Conexant Broadband Communications, a leading global maker of chips for broadband communications, has applied for membership, which could be approved soon, Roger Hu, director of the firm’s Beijing research and development (R&D) centre, told China Daily. The significance of foreign vendors applying is this: China is a huge market, which places vendors in the interesting position of asking themselves which is more important to them: achieving global agreement on a single standard, or having equal access to one fifth of the world’s consumers â₢?? and the second largest number of Internet users? In the 3G telephone space, where China is also promoting a home-grown standard, most cell phone vendors are playing both sides of the issue.

Thus, while Intel and several other chip vendors were able to enlist the assistance of the U.S. government to postpone adoption of WAPI the first time around, perhaps this time there will be Western vendors that break ranks, falling in behind both WAPI and Wi-Fi.

Finally, let’s pause on one last interesting question: For some years, many have accused China of highlighting supposed security weaknesses in the Wi-Fi standard as a reason to justify mandating a local standard, which would otherwise violate its obligations under the WTO, as enforced through the Act on Technical Barriers to Trade. If China could point out a valid local concern not met by a global standard, then it could make a case for its own standard without incurring retaliation.

But was this just a smokescreen, or a real concern? Let’s take a look at one last article, this time from Ars Technica, which had this to say, harking back to the IEEE’s displeasure over WAPI’s hidden security algorithm:

The Chinese press is portraying the WAPI alliance as the coming together of diverse companies seeking a solution to “loopholes” in Western technology. However, there is little doubt that the Chinese government has encouraged this alliance with an eye toward its own economic gain, and with WAPI’s algorithm still hidden in the shadows, one has to wonder who WAPI’s adoption would make more secure: consumers, or the Chinese government?

For now, that’s a question without a definitive answer.

Now that it has reemerged from the shadows, this is a story with many episodes yet to air. I’ll report on them here as they do.

[To browse all prior blog entries on this story, click here]

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