Wi-Fi As We Know It Is Doomed

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.

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.

Wi-Fi frag

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.

Wi-Fi doomed

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.

13 thoughts on “Wi-Fi As We Know It Is Doomed

    1. wirednot Post author

      You have keen insight into my character, Eddie. I was also dishonorably discharged from the military, am on the no-fly list, I’m a poor tipper, and I never call my mamma.

      Reply
  1. Timothy O'Hara

    Lee, I’m curious as to your thoughts are on the Marriott WiFi blocking case to education network operators. I have some K12 schools that have discussed finding and blocking hotspots to ensure compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act. I’m not sure it’s a good analogy as the education operator isn’t trying to sell access, but it is similar enough that it makes me wonder…

    Reply
    1. wirednot Post author

      Hi Tim-

      I don’t have a real answer, other than I wish the FCC gave recognition to how Wi-Fi has changed since it first was introduced.Yes, it’s unlicensed, but society and a lot of industry players have elevated it to the point of being a critical resource. Would be nice if FCC said clearly “you can’t disrupt, but you can walk to your door and tell it to stay outside for the greater good”. Anyone who runs a business network will likely understand where I’m coming from, those who don’t will poo poo the notion. Complicated times!

      Reply
  2. Toivo Voll

    The number of new products I’m seeing in 2015 in the medical device arena that proudly will support up to 802.11g and 802.11a, will not do EAP/MSChapV2 and won’t roam / reauthenticate gracefully even if they support EAP, have vendors requiring 20 MHz channels, no DFS channels, and suggest running everything with PSK as best practice is mind boggling. It’s like the education sector problem with printers, except with healthcare devices.

    Reply
    1. wirednot Post author

      Hi Tivo- thanks for reading and for the input. It’s utterly insane, and to me the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the Wi-Fi Alliance. To say they do interoperabilty testing is an absolute joke.

      Reply
  3. Keith Parsons

    It is just too bad the organization that SHOULD be at the forefront making sure Wi-Fi continues successfully into the future, is the VERY ONE not doing their job and allowing all you’ve mentioned in the article.

    Come on Wi-Fi Alliance – get with the program, grow a little backbone and start TESTING Wi-Fi to real-world standards needed in the enterprise not some watered down, mamby-pamby, minimalist tests made for the very minimum requirements – YOU are the ones causing these issues.

    Anyone else think the WFA could and should fix this problem and isn’t because they are owned, lock, stock, and barrel by the very ones they should be testing?

    Yes – I’m a bit bitter – sorry if my attitude was showing.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Wi-Fi As We Know It Is Doomed - Steve Williams GroupSteve Williams Group

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