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Bell’s WLAN Challenge

Even though the company emphasized speed and reliability at the recent launch of its new service, security is all anyone wanted to talk about. As a result, it finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to prove that something won't happen.


December 1, 2002  


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On a wet morning in October, a group of telecommunications and networking analysts and reporters in Toronto turned out for a news conference where Bell Canada announced its commercial entry into the Wireless Local Area Networking (WLAN) market.

Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was previous experience with WLAN systems, or perhaps it was the natural and healthy dose of cynicism that every good reporter should cultivate, but it struck me that Bell’s announcement was greeted without the excitement the company hoped to generate.

Bell’s presentations emphasized speed and reliability, vertical applications such as health care and education, first class planning, provisioning, installation and customer service, and the productivity gains and other benefits that users would enjoy. But when the floor was opened to questions, much of the discussion revolved around security issues.

To their credit, the Bell spokespeople anticipated this and fielded the questions well. They emphasized that one of the reasons it took Bell until now to enter the WLAN game — systems have been available from equipment suppliers and systems integrators for a while now — was the company’s own concern over security.

Bell worked with its vendor partners, including Symbol Technologies and Cisco Systems, to create a system that Bell is confident is secure from end to end. Bell brought in a dedicated team of security experts from Nortel Networks for this project. And, through Bell University Labs, the company has worked with the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo to test its WLAN system, including by trying to hack into it.

What’s more, there’s no reason to expect Bell won’t continue to test and improve the security of its WLAN system going forward. It has to. While the company is the first major Canadian network operator to add WLAN systems to its bag of tricks, WLAN systems have been available for some time. Why would a company go with Bell if it can pick up a WLAN solution at any well-stocked computer store?

There are a few reasons. First, it’s likely Bell will bundle this system with other services it offers its corporate customers. Second, Bell can relieve a company of the burden of setting up, maintaining, and trouble-shooting such a system. But third, and probably most important, companies will look to a provider such as Bell to deliver a high-performance system that’s reliable and secure.

Unfortunately when it comes to security, Bell is in the unenviable position of trying to prove something won’t happen. Proving ease of installation will be a cakewalk, and can be done with a pen on the back of a napkin. Proving data speeds will also be a no-brainer: set up a network and run some large files across it. But proving the network can’t be broken into?

That’s a stain on every wireless network, everywhere. No matter how secure a wireless network is made — and I’m confident Bell, with its resources and its reputation at stake, is doing all it can to make its WLAN system bulletproof — WLAN’s over-the-air nature means it will always be perceived to be more susceptible to interception than hardwired networks. The questions users have to ask are “how likely is it?” and “does it really matter?”

The answer to the second question varies with the customer and the data involved. If a school using WLAN for sharing educational materials is hacked, it’s probably not a big issue. But if the school uses it for sharing personal information, like home addresses and marks, then it becomes serious.

As for the first question, I suspect the answer is “almost entirely unlikely”. Bell will continue to enhance its system’s security, and, if it’s on the ball will continue to report both efforts and successes. Bell’s entry into the WLAN arena is good news for the technology over all. One of the biggest contributions the company can make is to boost confidence in wireless technologies as a medium for LANs.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached at 416-878-7730 or tpmarshall@eol.ca.


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