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Deciphering the Latest Wireless Acronyms

Stumped by acronyms such as WPA2 and WMM? You're not alone. We define these new terms and, more importantly, explain why you need to care about them.
By Ron Pacchiano

Acronyms come and go so quickly in this industry that it's easy to occasionally miss a few. Both of these are also relatively new, so I wouldn't be surprised if some of you haven't heard of them yet. Before we explain what's new in WPA2, let's take a look back at WPA, for those of you not familiar with it.

WPA is a specification of security enhancements that increases the level of data protection and access control for existing Wi-Fi networks and was designed to be forward compatible with the upcoming IEEE 802.11i specification. In addition to user-authentication capabilities and support for the Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP), WPA uses enhanced data encryption technology via the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP). TKIP provides important data encryption enhancements, including a per-packet key-mixing function, a message integrity check (MIC), an extended initialization vector (IV) with sequencing rules, and a re-keying mechanism.

The important thing to take away from all this is that when all of these protocols are brought together, these features make WPA a far stronger security solution than WEP. The way it works is that WPA keeps out unauthorized users by requiring all devices to have a valid password. Once the password has been verified, the TKIP-encryption process begins. Based on the original password, TKIP mathematically derives a new security key, which is then used by all the wireless clients for network access. TKIP will automatically update this key on a regular basis. The reason for this is that long and constantly changing encryption keys are extremely difficult to decode.

This is where the mechanics of WPA are substantially different from WEP. In WEP the same static encryption key is used over and over again. While no security mechanism can be considered "absolutely secure," the protection given by WPA is strong enough to prevent most attacks, even many sophisticated ones. As such, WPA offers a pragmatic, economical security mechanism for most users.

Key Terms To Understanding Wireless Acronyms:

Short for Wired Equivalent Privacy, a security protocol for wireless local area networks (WLANs) defined in the 802.11b standard.

Short for Wi-Fi Protected Access, a Wi-Fi standard that was designed to improve upon the security features of WEP.

Short for Wi-Fi Protected Access 2, the follow on security method to WPA for wireless networks that provides stronger data protection and network access control.

Short for wireless fidelity and is meant to be used generically when referring of any type of 802.11 network.

WMM stands for Wi-Fi Multimedia. It is a standard created to define quality of service (QoS) in Wi-Fi networks.

You should note, however, that encryption for the U.S. military and other classified communications is handled by separate, secret algorithms. AES cryptography is based on the Rijndael (pronounced rain-dahl) algorithm created by Belgian cryptographers, Joan Daemen & Vincent Rijmen

802.11i provides improved encryption for networks that use 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g standards. Other features include key caching, which facilitates fast reconnection to the server for users who have temporarily gone offline, and pre-authentication, which allows fast roaming and is ideal for use with advanced applications such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). You may be be able to upgrade some WPA products to WPA2 by software. Others may require a hardware change due to the computationally intensive nature of WPA2's required AES encryption.

Now let's discuss the new WMM protocol. WMM or Wi-Fi Multimedia is a standard created to define quality of service (QoS) in Wi-Fi networks. It is a precursor to the upcoming 802.11e standard, which is meant to improve audio, video and voice applications transmitted over Wi-Fi.

Through the use of this standard, network administrators will be able to prioritize traffic that would suffer if delayed. An example of this is VoIP. Imagine, for example, that you just switched your telephone system to a VoIP system. Shortly after you notice that during the hours of peak network usage, your calls start dropping packets, making the conversations taking place at the time frustrating and useless. The QoS features of WMM would make sure that the VoIP calls receive the highest priority, ensuring that your calls always sound loud and clear. Currently, only a handful of products from vendors like Linksys, Atheros, Cisco, Broadcom and Intel have been certified for WMM, but expect to see more over the next few months.

More Wireless Computing Terms From Webopedia


Did You Know...
ore than 5 billion text messages are sent each month in the U.S. alone, and as wireless phone sales increase, so will the number of text messages that are being sent worldwide. Text messaging has become a major revenue source for wireless carriers, but it has also introduced a new way for advertisers to to communicate with consumers.

Adapted from
By Ron Pacchiano.
Last updated: October 28, 2005

Related Links

VoIP Meets WiFi - An Introduction to VoIP, WiFi and VoWiFi
The advances of VoIP and Internet telephony in general have come a long way since their inception. Most recently, the "next big thing" has been to merge Wi-Fi with VoIP, producing one of the oddest acronyms you'll ever see. VoWiFi. VoWiFi, or Voice over Wireless Fidelity, simply means a Wi-Fi based VoIP service . or in even more general terms, a wireless based VoIP system.

Wi-Fi Planet
Wi-Fi Planet (formerly 802.11 Planet) is your complete guide to the world of networking products based on the various 802.11 wireless networking protocols (collectively known as Wi-Fi). With daily news, features, reviews, and tutorials, Wi-Fi Planet covers all areas of the rapidly changing wireless LAN universe.

Wi-Fi HotSpotList 
To find HotSpots near a location, enter a complete or partial address. By default, all locations within 1 mile are shown. Click on "Browse by Region" to see all HotSpots in a city. Click on a HotSpot name for a map within the U.S. and Europe.

Practically Networked
PracticallyNetworked has provided practical, easy-to-understand help for small network builders since early 1998. The site contains the most complete "How-To" information for setting up Internet sharing found anywhere! Users can find extensive troubleshooting information, tips on getting special applications to work through firewalls, and product reviews on Hardware Routers, Wireless and HomePNA LAN products, and more!

Wi-Fi Protected Access Overview (PDF)
An explanatory document from the Wi-Fi Alliance.

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