Telecoms

House rules

China brings back its homegrown Wi-Fi standard

Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

When it comes to technology, China seems to enjoy reinventing the wheel. Not content with the DVD, Beijing introduced its own video disk format, EVD. Unhappy with MPEG-4, the government created an alternative standard for compressing audio and video files called AVS. And despite already licensing two widely adopted 3G standards, China insisted on developing a homegrown version, TD-SCDMA.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Beijing is now pushing another national standard. This time, it’s a homegrown wireless encryption standard WAPI (WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure), a Chinese version of Wi-Fi.

But wait – didn’t Beijing already introduce WAPI years ago? Back in 2003, the government surprised the telecoms industry by demanding that WAPI be used on all mobile data products sold in the country. The rule change provoked a chorus of protest from manufacturers like Intel. Even then US Secretary of State Colin Powell had a word to say about the changes, and Beijing was forced to back down – for a while.

Refusing to let the idea die, Beijing once again tried to promote its homegrown standard last year, saying that Wi-Fi-enabled phone handsets could only be sold if they came equipped with WAPI. As a result, when Apple’s iPhone finally hit Chinese shelves last October, it did so without its Wi-Fi capability, causing a boom in the grey market for the Apple bestseller (see WiC36). Units sold under-the-counter were often smuggled in from overseas, or had been adjusted to support Wi-Fi services.

WAPI supporters, however, insist the homegrown technology has some real benefits over Wi-Fi – it comes with extra security protocols that help prevent data loss and network invasions.

And there is some truth to their claim. Industry experts have long criticised Wi-Fi’s security flaws. The Economic Observer recently reported on a device called Wireless Rub Card that’s been selling out across the country. The card – which costs between Rmb160-240 ($23-35) – allows users to easily (and illegally) crack into their neighbour’s Wi-Fi network and surf for free.

Taobao.com, the country’s largest online retailer, had tried to ban the sale of such products on its website, but sellers quickly started using a different name for the device.

The newspaper says that the Wireless Rub Card can detect wireless networks in the surrounding neighbourhood, and reveals their passwords.

Experts say that when someone hacks into a wireless network, broadband speed is reduced. Emails can also be intercepted and credit card details stolen.

“China didn’t recognise Wi-Fi because of its safety loopholes and lack of regulation, not because we had to have our own homegrown standard,” retorts Qin Zhiqiang, vice-director of the Technical Committee on Wireless Network.

The Economic Observer reckons that the popularity of products like the Wireless Rub Card will encourage more internet users to adopt WAPI.

Handset makers are also slowly embracing the standard. Motorola introduced two mobile phones last year that support both WAPI and Wi-Fi. And Apple, too, is said to be releasing iPhones that have both capabilities. Broadcom, the largest Wi-Fi chip manufacturer, started updating its products to include WAPI last November.

Beijing certainly has high hopes for WAPI. The locally developed technology is one of China’s “indigenous innovations”, and part of a 15-year programme unveiled in 2006 that aims to reduce reliance on foreign technology.

By pushing for its own standards, the Chinese government hopes to cut royalty payments and wean its companies off foreign-owned technologies.

Then again, not everything has gone quite to plan. EVD fared poorly when it was released in 2004; AVS was also a flop; and there hasn’t been a huge amount of enthusiasm for TD-SCMDA either…


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