Published in the March 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Many businesses invested heavily in Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) over the last few years, and they reaped some benefits during that time. The 802.11b WLAN systems offered reduced cabling costs, greater flexibility, and coverage in previously inaccessible locations. Although users reveled in these conveniences, the honeymoon soon ended as facility managers began encountering the dark side of WLANs.
As WLAN popularity spread, wireless “Hot Spots” sprouted everywhere. Designed to attract customers to coffee shops, stores, and restaurants, these wireless networks were open to anyone within range (150′ or less, depending mainly on obstructions that dampened the signal) who had a laptop and a wireless card.
Unknowingly, many businesses were also offering this service. Their WLANs, while providing coverage for their employees, stretched far outside to the rest of the world. From the floor above-or even outside from an adjacent street-anyone nearby could receive signals from these wireless networks.
While some security was built into early wireless standards, the encryption was far from perfect. In fact, programs available as freeware allowed anyone with basic WLAN knowledge to hack past the encryption. Many WLANs didn’t even have their encryption turned on.
Once in, intruders should have been stopped by other security measures. But few networks had anything in place equal to the skills of a good teenage hacker. (I know one network security specialist who can defeat any 802.11b WLAN in less than five minutes; he can then hack past all but the most robust network security. I’m glad he’s one of the good guys!)
The problem quickly grew, with hackers using Web sites to post street addresses where free WLAN connections could be found. Some inventive hacker also discovered that, with an empty Pringles can, it was possible to jump onto WLANs that would otherwise be out of range.
More effective than a Pringles can, specialized, sensitive antennas were soon on the market; so was the software designed to defeat encryption. With regular frequency, companies were finding that their networks had been trespassed. Sensitive data had been compromised, and some systems were even being used as the base for attacks against other networks. (I know one facility manager who received a surprise visit from the FBI when a hacker used the company network in an attempt to hack a financial institution’s computer system. It appeared as if the hacker was inside the company, but it was discovered that the culprit had gotten in through a WLAN that covered the facility as well as an adjacent parking garage.)
As these problems became more widespread, many companies simply shut off their WLANs. For a while, it was even suggested that these systems had no place in critical business networks. Now, thanks to a whole new breed of wireless network technologies, facility managers are showing interest in retooled WLANs with amazing security, speed, and coverage.
It’s no surprise that better security is the most important aspect of today’s WLANs. Older WLANs used a 40- or 64-bit encryption called Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP). These signals were encrypted with a key code that was 40 or 64 bits long. To break into the transmission, a hacker simply had to find the correct code by using a program that repeatedly tried key numbers until access was granted. This was made even easier by the fact that WEP limited the number of possible keys.
Introduced in 2002, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), a more advanced version of encryption, provided 128-bit encryption and changed the key code at intervals during the transmission. So by the time a hacker broke the code, it had already changed.
The latest advance is the 802.11i security standard, also known as WPA2. This standard complies with the Federal Government’s Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and provides robust 256-bit encryption. WPA2 closes the back door weaknesses of previous systems and is a real blessing to government facilities previously unable to use wireless because of security restrictions.
There are many benefits to 802.11a and 802.11g, the new WLAN technology. Of the two, 802.11g appears to be the overall winner. It has better range, penetrates more effectively through walls and floors, and works on older 802.11b networks (although they are slightly slower than dedicated 802.11b-only cards). This means facility managers can start buying the latest technology cards in anticipation of upgrading to 802.11g.
Speed is another major benefit of both systems, since they communicate at up to 54 Megabytes per second (a significant jump from the 11 Megabyte per second transmission rate attributed to 802.11b). Encryption, re-transmission, and other technical issues actually slow the rate to less than half that speed, but even with this adjustment, the increase means that all kinds of new uses are available. Today’s WLANs can accommodate large file transfers, audio, and even high quality video for wireless video surveillance cameras.
Keep in mind that increased speed comes at a price: more antennas are needed, because the coverage area radius for the new technology is less than that of 802.11b. There are many new antennas that can solve this problem by focusing signals precisely where they are needed. Direction units can focus coverage in a cone-shaped beam or other specific shapes, allowing facility managers to cover areas selectively without broadcasting beyond the desired area.
By bringing an end to the nightmare of security leaks, the next generation of WLANs offers a bright future. With more options and speeds as high as 200 Megabytes per second, these products will encourage facility managers to fall in love with wireless once again.
Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.