Wi-Fi had a good run, but the end is in sight. It’s terminally ill, and those of us that should be administering aid are instead pouring salt in the wounds. Stick a fork in it, brother. Wi-Fi is almost done.
I realize that the opener for this blog is a bit confusing. After all, we’re just getting into the heyday of 802.11ac. We now have Wi-Fi calling over smartphones, and can stream 100 channels of eye-popping entertainia over low-end tablets. We got the IoT knocking on the door, ISPs trying to make every home a public hotspot, and F-150s with their own WLANs. It would certainly seem that Wi-Fi is not only alive, but is the kick-assiest dude in the technology dojo. Ah, but things aren’t always what they seem.
If you go back and review the lesser known predictions of Nostradamus’ cousin Benny, you’ll find this verse:
Though airwaves of connectyness seem robust
The unpure of radio will do goofy stuff
And what should be good will turn crappy
And clients will all whisper “what the shit happened here?”
Benny knew of the evils of trying to do much without some sort of structured, guided evolution. Benny knew that if you throw the door wide open and turn your back on it, both unicorns and wharf rats are likely to walk in. And both have- which brings us to the pending demise of Wi-Fi.
Can’t Have It Both Ways
When Wi-Fi came to be mainstream, we all tended to nurture it carefully. We were meticulous in our designs, we passed policy that balanced the needs of the users and the security and health of the WLAN, and basically cherished the good thing that we found. But then Wi-Fi got big, went all Hollywood on us, and we turned into irresponsible parents. We started letting Wi-Fi have bad habits, and those habits are going to lead to a messy end that will leave us as Wi-Fi admins feeling guilty for our parts in it.
You can’t have non-Enterprise WLAN gear showing up on business WLAN environments and accommodate it without a cost. Because consumer-grade gear can’t be made to play by Enterprise Rules, we either turn it away (fat chance in many cases) or we dumb-down our meticulously crafted enterprise Wi-Fi networks. We watch companies like Google put out Glass and Chromecast, get giddy over them, and then all sign onto the lie that people won’t demand to use these on business networks despite their very un-enterprisey capabilities. We watch wireless printer and projector makers continue to live in 1999 for WLAN capabilities, and do little as an industry to fix it. We sit by while mobile titans like Verizon and AT&T pepper the landscape with Mi-Fi devices, and get steamed when students bring classroom Wi-Fi to it’s knees with iPhone personal hotspots all on channel 2 at power well beyond what our own APs put out. We see client makers still put out 2.4 GHz-only WLAN adapters, and then act surprised when we get trouble tickets for those devices in RF-dirty spaces.
We’ve gone from relying on the “Wi-Fi Certified” program to provide baseline interoperability to putting up with the current “anything goes” mindset of wireless clients. If left untreated, the condition will only get worse and worse. Business Wi-Fi simply can’t continue to fend off the attacks of consumer-grade gear and tech-ignorant mindsets that go with that gear. When companies as big as Apple, Google, Canon, Novatel, and Ricoh see it as perfectly fine to ignore the generally accepted parameters that constitute business Wi-Fi and put out whatever suits them without regard for impact on “real” WLAN environments, those environments will eventually wither in quality and morph into something ugly. And it would seem that no industry group or voice is really interested in stopping the bleeding despite one corporate data breach after another , the commoditization of wireless attack tools, and the move of ever more business network clients to the WLAN.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it should be obvious that there’s not much delineation left between “consumer” and “enterprise” in the minds of many clients. We as admins won’t be able to perpetuate the age-old defensive tactic of “you can’t use that thing on this network” for much longer as whatever “that thing” is gets ever more popular.
Because “we” in WLAN (clients, admins, vendors, Wi-Fi Alliance, FCC, IEEE, etc) all seem willing to turn a blind eye to the continued effect of consumerization on wireless infrastructure, it stands to reason that business Wi-Fi as we know it can’t survive very much longer. It will be interesting to see what comes next.