Yesterday, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced an update to its certification program for perhaps one of the most under-used features in networking products: WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup).
WPS is a push-button or PIN passcode-entering method of quickly connecting wireless devices to routers, extenders, and other networking equipment – typically, consumer equipment.
The organisation will start certifying the new crop of networking products with an update to a version of WPS that employs NFC tap-to-connect. So, in addition to Push-Button Configuration (PBC) and PINs, users will be able to tap two wireless gadgets together and connect them. WPS will then automatically configure the network SSID and activate WPA2 security.
WPS beginnings and Internet of Things
WPS was introduced in 2007. In the last four years, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the global organisation that certifies wireless products to make sure they meet specific standards and play nice with each other, has certified thousands of products as WPS-supported. These products aren't just routers, access points, PCs, and laptops. They include smart TVs, printers, set-top boxes, and smartphones.
Now, of course, the latest tech craze is the "Internet of Things." Major networking companies and device manufacturers are salivating as they envision and create an IP matrix of connected stuff. The tech trend is to have all of our things connected to the Internet grid; things like cars, dishwashers, even the humble crockpot or indeed bed will have some capability to connect to a network.
Thus, making devices easier to get onto our networks becomes critical for the Internet of Things to fly. You can find plenty of predictive analysis about the growth of wireless devices, but in a nutshell, by 2018 the expectation is that there will be one Wi-Fi device for every person on the planet.
The bottom line for adding NFC to WPS? Make connecting as easy as ABC. Without networking setup hassles, people will be more likely to connect their gadgets to networks. That's the goal at least, according to the NFC forum chairman Koichi Tagawa.
"The NFC Forum is pleased to see NFC technology being embraced by the Wi-Fi Protected Setup certification program as we work together to simplify connectivity for the user," he said.
Making networking products easier for everyday people to use – that's a good thing, of course. People also really do seem to want that always-on access at their fingertips. The average consumer should not have to be an engineer in order to set up a wireless router, or connect a tablet to a home network.
Yet, as wireless tech, and now updates to WPS surge ahead, there is always the real danger of tech advancement outpacing security. It was only two years ago that a security researcher discovered a vulnerability through the WPS PIN connection option on wireless routers and access points. Since then, router manufacturers have attempted to shore up security – some vendors even did away with the PIN component of WPS.
However, more NFC support adds another possible level of security concern. How long will it take for someone to figure out a backdoor into NFC-capable devices?
Even router manufacturers are adopting a "wait-and-see" stance in wake of today's Wi-Fi Alliance announcement. While Trendnet was one of the first networking companies to include Push and PIN WPS across its entire wireless product line, the company is proceeding cautiously.
"The idea behind WPS was to make it easier to connect devices to a wireless network while maintaining network security," said Zak Wood, director of global marketing for Trendnet. "PIN and push button WPS methods have not gained popularity since the process is not designed with mobile or smart home products in mind. The tap-to-connect near-field communication (NFC) WPS method is better suited to work with these products. Trendnet is currently testing this technology and planning a limited rollout near the end of this year."
Jason Owen, CEO of Amped Wireless, offered a similar sentiment. "We have been looking at [NFC WPS] for a while now. Overall, there's not a big adoption yet on the manufacturer's side. We will support it on higher-end routers and extenders."
Over in the US, Amped Wireless has plans to start rolling out NFC WPS near the end of the year but according to Owen, the plan is to wait for the market to start picking up with the feature.
On a side note, we won't be seeing firmware updates in existing routers that support the new WPS standard. The NFC is built into a chip. As of today's announcement, the first products to support the NFC option are Broadcom's Dual-Band 802.11ac Access Point and its chip in the Google Nexus 10; Marvell's 8787 Plug with NFC; Mediatek's NFConnected AP and NFConnected STA; and Qualcomm's Dual-Band XSPAN 2-strem 802.11n WLAN adapter.
It's highly probable that more products will be arriving by end of this year, and we'll see the continued evolution of Wi-Fi to accommodate the world of the Internet of Things.
"Wi-Fi Protected Setup gives customers simplicity and peace of mind," said Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of Wi-Fi Alliance. "We continue to evolve our Wi-Fi Certified programs to support market requirements today and in the future, all while taking security-protected Wi-Fi into the many areas where Wi-Fi is becoming popular."