Why My WLAN Hates Your PAN

Why My WLAN Hates Your PAN

By CWNP On 06/20/2011 - 27 Comments

The 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum is anarchy. This “open” band is a magnet for any and all wireless consumer technologies, attracting everyone like FREE BEER at a frat house. With a big push in spectrum analysis lately, we’ve all been focused on non-Wi-Fi interferers like wireless video cameras, microwaves, motion sensors, and the like, for ruining our unlicensed frequency. But, with so many competing use cases for the technology and an open policy on spectrum use, Wi-Fi devices are perfectly capable of ruining the uncontrolled—I mean unlicensed—spectrum on their own. And they often do.

One problem with the Wi-Fi industry today is that there are two competing users: consumers and businesses. But, there’s only one industry group to represent and develop technologies for both user types. Consumers and businesses want more and better, but how that looks for the two groups is as far apart as my muscles are from Flex Wheeler’s. The Wi-Fi Alliance gives us some technologies driven from the consumer side and some from the enterprise side, but no one is driving a cohesive strategy for coexistence.

This issue is coming to a head as the Wi-Fi boom occurs in businesses and new consumer technologies expand into the market. Bluetooth uses Wi-Fi when large data transfers are necessary. The Wi-Fi Alliance is pushing consumer-driven ad hoc networking in the form of Wi-Fi Direct. And, Apple just announced a new proprietary ad hoc Wi-Fi connection mode, dubbed AirDrop, for its next-gen MAC OS. Though these features are designed for individuals and home users, the BYOD (or whatever you want to call it) phenomenon is bringing consumer technologies to the office.

The consumer-devices-in-the-enterprise problem is much bigger than security and device management. Both are problems, I agree. But, perhaps more detrimental to Wi-Fi network health is the possibility of creating an unregulated consumer network on top of an engineered network.

Designing and deploying a good WLAN is not easy. After taking the time to do it right, what’s to prevent consumer devices from setting up an AirDrop or Wi-Fi Direct connection on channel 3, stepping all over your well designed business network? Engineered WLANs in public or consumer-oriented spaces, such as a sports stadium, conference center, or university, will likely have the biggest problems from consumer networks and spectrum saturation. Speaking of spectrum saturation, 2.4 GHz is only going to get worse as more consumer devices incorporate Wi-Fi chips.

These new ad hoc protocols aren’t helping us out at all. In addition to that, client device vendors are notoriously unpredictable when it comes to implementing enterprise-friendly features. Most client device vendors target consumers, and their development processes focus exclusively on consumer features. There’s little client device regulation to help enterprises. So, not only do we get unfriendly protocols, but we also get networks created and operated by poorly designed client devices lacking enterprise management. Frustrating issues like 10 ms beacon periods, default operation on channel 3, poor protocol implementation (bugs), and proprietary “improvements” are inevitable.

If the glass is half empty, network admins have new headaches.

If the glass is half full, “job security” comes to mind.

Other than strict use policies and device control, there’s no real solution available today to protect our spectrum from consumer devices. Network monitoring solutions will have something to offer in the future, but I wonder if a better protocol-based solution could work. Perhaps there’s a way to protect engineered WLAN space from haphazard consumer networks.

Final Comments and Suggestions (FCS)
The consumer device infestation in the enterprise has a number of implications for our WLANs. In addition to device management, security, role-based access, guest access, and other considerations, we have to plan ahead for spectrum management issues. New peer-to-peer Wi-Fi protocols will impact the utilization of our RF space, and our mission-critical networks will suffer for it. Unfortunately, current standards offer no solutions. Perhaps business policy will be the best answer for a while, but a solid technical solution should also be pursued. In the meantime, let’s hope that client device manufacturers do their best to protect business WLANs as they implement consumer-focused features.

Tagged with: wi-fi alliance, Wi-Fi Direct, Apple AirDrop, Bluetooth, bandwidth, frequency

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Jon Linton Says:
06/29/2011 at 13:18pm
The FCC arguement is interesting. As I understant the FCC really only regulates L1. The 47 CFR part 15 label attached to all these devices says to me that all devices have to accept whatever L1, L2, and L8?? secret sauce the vendors cook up. Consumer device don't have any more rights to the medium than the enterprise ones. However, the enterprise ones will like have a some smarts and tricks. DoS'ing a consumer device I would think would be legal per the FCC so long as you do it within the power/frequency restictions. So, who regulates interstandard interference. WiFi Consortium, IETF, ISO, IEEE? Feels like we are taking a step back. As far as WiGig, LTE is a bigger threat to WiFi than WiGig. Physics trumps all marketing.

06/24/2011 at 11:50am
Agreed, IF you think this is 100% a L1 problem. I believe that this is a L1, L2, and L8 (system intelligence) problem, all of which have to be solved creatively.

06/24/2011 at 08:30am
I agree that co-channel and especially adjacent channel interference is a huge potential problem at 2.4 GHz. One of the interesting issues relates to the legality of suppressing these ad-hoc networks. My understanding of FCC rules suggests that enterprises cannot legally preclude the use of FCC-certified unlicensed devices. Enterprises don't own the spectrum in their facilities. They can establish acceptable use policies for their employees, so that addresses some of the problem, but not all of it. For example, a University would likely have no legal ability to suppress these services in a sports arena. Perhaps we will one day see football ticket stubs with fine print restricting such use.

06/23/2011 at 22:46pm
Please don't throw virtual rotten tomatoes at me, but: Might there be a case to be made for using a distributed antenna system, designed to deliver full capacity to the worst/poorest-performing clients, to distribute the Wi-Fi signals? DASs tend to get rid of channel-changes and roaming, which are major causes of instability. OK, I'm ducking....!

06/23/2011 at 14:35pm
I understand the points on good WLAN design for enteprise, even SMB environments. I also agree we must recognize that consumer usage cases driving the adoption of PAN is a game changer. If you dont see the obvious - you will soon be out of business. That said- I'm not sure I agree that the sky is falling perspective that comes across in this article: PAN is the bad guy.
Reality is that consumers do not care to know the details on the underlying protocol or wireless setup. Its all about ease of use- or useful applications that use the underlying technology available. Its not a hard point to make your mom or dad is not going to setup a BT profile or create a Ad Hoc network to transfer a file. Not without several phone calls asking for help.
I dont expect to find a bunch of devices (applications) making use of WifiDirect that will have any major impact to a good wireless design. Nor do I expect to find the go home come back to the office consumer putting these applications on their laptops, if they are allowed to install any SW at all.
Just my two cents- we should be aware of PAN devices.

GT Hill Says:
06/22/2011 at 12:51pm
Protocol will never solve a L1 problem. Only L1 solutions can solve a L1 problem.

06/20/2011 at 21:22pm
Infestation. Nice word choice. ;) I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how clever infrastructure vendors will be to solve some of the issues you've very adequately pointed out.

06/20/2011 at 16:55pm
with WiGig we are doomed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wireless_Gigabit_Alliance

06/20/2011 at 16:53pm
All I can say is Hurry up WirelessHD...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WirelessHD

06/20/2011 at 14:21pm
Enterprise WIDS/WIPS will soon automatically de-auth all WiFiDirect just like they do AdHoc today. Causing even more issues.
I think I'm leaning toward the "job security" outcome.

06/20/2011 at 14:18pm
Nice blog! My feeling says PAN's will be a greater threat than non-wifi interferers for large enterprise BYOD wlan's

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