New Wi-Fi spec allows access point bypass

Wi-Fi to get an upgrade with new specification

A new industry specification promises to un-network Wi-Fi networks. Dubbed Wi-Fi Direct, the spec will let your laptop or smartphone connect directly with other wireless devices.

Although touted by some as making Wi-Fi "easier," what the spec really does is make it more available. That's because the Wi-Fi radio in your laptop won't need an access point or a hotspot to connect with wireless printers, cameras, projectors, sensors or plasma screens.

"It can revolutionize what people do with it," says Edgard Figueroa, executive director, Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry group that coined the term that is now a widely used shorthand for radio networks based on the IEEE 802.11 standard. Alliance members, which include Cisco, Intel and other heavyweights, has been developing Wi-Fi Direct for the past year as a way to let a user with a Wi-Fi-enabled device create his own personal-area network (PAN).

The work explicitly addresses possible enterprise wireless LAN concerns, though these parts (and others) of the specification are not yet final, Figueroa says. Wi-Fi Direct sets up a connection negotiation process, resulting in a master-slave relationship, with one device having the role of "group owner" for a flock of Wi-Fi devices connecting together. The group owner controls the domain, administers it, and can grant or terminate Wi-Fi connections.

Enterprise WLAN administrators will have "some influence" over this environment, though precisely how and to what degree hasn't been determined yet. The intent of the Alliance committee drafting the spec is to ensure that Wi-Fi Direct PANs are secure, through support for Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA 2) and AES encryption, and that the two can coexist without interfering with each other.

No hardware changes will be needed, Figueroa says. Equipment or chipmakers will deploy the Wi-Fi Direct protocols as firmware upgrades to some existing products, but more likely as updated radio chips with the protocols burned in. The protocols will enable Wi-Fi radios to discover each other, negotiate links and set them up. The connections can be one-to-one, or a group of wireless devices can connect at the same time.

Devices certified for Wi-Fi Direct will have the same performance and range as existing radios, according to the Alliance.

One vendor promising to support the new spec is Ozmo Devices, which creates low-power Wi-Fi silicon and firmware to enable wireless devices to create a short-range PAN around your laptop's Wi-Fi radio. In a statement, the company says its technology will leverage Wi-Fi Direct to create a true PAN that can best Bluetooth in terms of power and throughput.

The final Wi-Fi Direct document will be ready before the end of this year, with products expected to be certified for it by about mid-2010.

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John Cox

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