Wireless LANs face hard sell among public sector customers

Home users and small businesses may be gobbling them up, but don’t expect to see wireless local-area networks (LANs) implemented on a broad scale throughout government offices any time soon.

Citing concerns over security threats and additional costs, public sector IT workers say wireless LAN

technology still needs improvement.

“”Have we considered it? Yes. Are we prepared to move ahead with it? No,”” says Lesley Rhys-Williams, a network specialist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Calgary. She provides technical support to about 250 users in Alberta and says no plans are in the works to cut her network’s wires.

“”It’s a security issue.””

Users and analysts worry that transmitting data through the air via radio frequencies leaves networks prone to snoops and hackers. Wireless technologies may allow for greater mobility and flexibility in some settings, but for many, the risks are unacceptable.

“”The security issue is way too huge,”” says Tim Hiebert, a network support worker with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Victoria.

Hiebert provides technical support for about 200 users at the Coast Guard base in Victoria. For him, wireless technologies wouldn’t make his job any easier.

“”I don’t see any real advantage to it,”” he says. “”They’re so short range, remote users with a laptop would still have to use a dial-up connection anyway.””

One industry analyst predicts this reluctance will eventually subside as stronger and more common security standards emerge.

For now, though, some organizations are embracing wireless LANs, according to Gemma Paulo, a senior analyst with In-Stat/MDR, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

She points to vertical markets such as education, health care and retail as likely candidates.

“”These are still the strongest drivers of business applications (of wireless LANs),”” she says.

“”Wireless LAN technology is for workers who need mobility to do their jobs.””

It makes sense then, that doctors and nurses in a hospital setting or university students at different points on campus would make use of wire-free networks.

In Toronto, for instance, hundreds of police cruisers are equipped with high-speed wireless-enabled laptops, enabling officers to do much of their paperwork electronically and on the road.

Schools using wireless LANs

One-time applications also make wireless options appealing for some users.

“”If we have a location where we have a particular event, it makes sense to use wireless networks,”” says Jeff Barnes, a network support administrator with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in St. John’s.

And across Canada, a number of schools have already begun rolling out wireless LAN projects. Earlier this year, the Calgary school board announced a three-year plan to bring wireless technology to 90,000 students in more than 200 schools.

Armed with laptops, students will have network access in hallways and other open spaces, and teachers will have greater flexibility in how they arrange their classrooms, according to the school board.

In P.E.I., educators are considering similar approaches.

“”It’s a possibility,”” says Sean MacIntosh, network operations manager with the province’s Department of Education, in Charlottetown.

“”They can sit down anywhere in the school and work.””

Already, one French school in Summerside is experimenting with wireless technologies, but financial and technical concerns may hinder broader rollouts.

“”When you’re in the public sector, I think everything comes down to cost,”” he says.

“”It’s also important that information cannot be intercepted.””

Paulo says that small business and small-office/home-office users are also buying up wireless LAN technology as it becomes easier to install and cheaper to user.

Large-scale enterprise implementations, however, have “”taken a hit by security issues.””

Currently, wireless network protection technology tends to be proprietary, and can be expensive and difficult to install, she says.

“”There are a lot of ways to make a network secure. It takes a lot of work.””

Enterprise clients are still waiting for more open-ended options.

“”They have concerns about the security not being standardized.””

One solution is better encryption, according to Paulo. She points to the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) as one way forward for wireless LANs, saying it offers better security than Web-based options.

Users want interoperability

Late last year, the U.S. Commerce Department endorsed AES as a replacement for the Data Encryption Standard (developed in 1977), as well as the triple DES protocol, for protecting government and commercial data.

The move is a step forward, Paulo says.

“”But that needs to be built into the silicon.””

For the moment, though, security problems remain, with industry watchers warning of potentially widespread incidents of “”drive-by”” hacking in the near future. In Toronto, one journalist recently described how easy it was for him to drive around his neighbourhood and access different wireless networks, while in the U.K., a consultant cautioned attendees at a security conference about the perils of unsolicited e-mail flooding office networks via unprotected simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) ports on company servers.

Security experts are preparing to fight back, however.

This summer, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a U.S. research and engineering firm, set up a wireless network to lure hackers and monitor their methods of attack. SAIC officials say they’re interested in researching hackers and their habits, not prosecuting them, according to media reports.

Besides security, enterprise users also want greater interoperability and compatibility among different standards, according to Paulo.

In particular, “”they’re waiting for dual-mode products to come out,”” she says. That means developing products that can run on today’s 2.4 GHz equipment (based on the IEEE 802.11b standard) as well as future 5 GHz wireless networks (based on the 802.11a standard).

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