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Roaming Security WLAN

Wi-Fi: What We Need and What We Keep Getting

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No technology is perfect, but for most of my career in Wi-Fi there has been a persistent set of problems that continue to have no resolution in sight. They could be fixed, other wireless protocols have solutions for some of them, and there have been attempts to fix them but the results are so watered-down that they are ineffective. Today I’m going to channel my inner Lee Badman and get a little grumpy about Wi-Fi. Please bear with me as I go through my list of gripes. These are the real problems that real enterprises have with Wi-Fi, and each successive generation of Wi-Fi has does little to address them.

Crap Clients

Much has been written about the sorry state of Wi-Fi clients, so I won’t go too far into what is already well-documented. But so many Wi-Fi clients are utter garbage! They lack support for enterprise security (WPA2/3-Enterprise), some only support the enterprise-unfriendly 2.4 GHz band, there are new clients on the market today with 802.11g radios in them, their drivers are buggy and often go unpatched, and few clients support amendments to the 802.11 standard that are important to enterprise Wi-Fi performance and security (802.11k/v/r/w). I could go on… but why beat a dead horse?

Bad Roaming

This is mostly a client problem in Wi-Fi, but it deserves a callout all its own. Very, very few Wi-Fi clients roam effectively. Some are so sticky that they are totally unusable in a multi-AP network unless they never move. Further, most clients provide zero visibility into their roaming algorithm, let alone provide any configuration to correct it. Yes, some manufacturers have published roaming specs, but they are not telling the whole story, and real-world observations often contradict their documentation.

There have been engineering efforts at IEEE to improve roaming, but very little has come of it, and the Wi-Fi Alliance does not test that clients roam effectively in its certification programs. It’s the wild west, anything goes, and you don’t know what you are getting until you take a client out of the box and test it yourself.

And yet, the tools to fix the situation already exist. I believe that the right combination of 802.11k and 802.11v features could fix the sticky client problem. With 802.11k beacon reports, all clients could periodically report their RSSI and the RSSI of nearby AP’s to the AP. The AP could then use 802.11v BSS transition frames to direct clients to roam to the appropriate AP at the appropriate RSSI or MCS threshold. The WLAN administrator could configure whatever RSSI or MCS threshold was appropriate for the WLAN as designed, and all clients would roam in accordance with it. This is similar to the method LTE uses for handoffs (roaming in cellular-speak).

Unfortunately, client support for 802.11k is limited and support for beacon reports is even more limited. Same for 802.11v. AP vendors let you enable or disable these features, but give little insight into how they will actually behave (e.g. What a client actually does with 802.11k neighbor reports is anyone’s guess because they are absorbed into their already flawed, proprietary roaming algorithms, and how and when AP’s use BSS transition frames is largely undocumented). Because the IEEE decided these features are optional, and the Wi-Fi Alliance does not require their support for certification, we will never be able to fix roaming this way. This major problem will remain unresolved for as far as I can see into the future.

Unstable WLAN Infrastructure Products

If you have worked with Wi-Fi long enough, you have a favorite facepalm-inducing example of an access point bug that should never have been allowed out into the wild. And yet they are, frequently, as if no quality assurance or beta testing is ever done on the code that so many mission critical WLAN’s rely on. No AP vendor is immune. It’s shocking. It’s scandalous. Managers often don’t believe what their wireless engineers tell them about the shoddy state of the code they are running on networks that support patient care in hospitals and critical factory production lines, but it is a very real problem.

I used to think, “Well, once we get to the next major release they will have all this fixed.” That was many years ago.

Cumbersome Enterprise Security

Provisioning client suppliants for enterprise Wi-Fi security is much more difficult and complex than it ought to be, and for many clients it is impossible. Supplicant support is lacking or broken, and bulk provisioning is even harder to execute.

No Guest Wi-Fi Security

Why, in 2020, should guest Wi-Fi be unencrypted, and lack identity verification of the network? Is there a more common protocol than 802.11 that still isn’t completely wrapped in TLS?

Opportunistic Wireless Encryption (OWE) solves part of the problem by implementing encryption for open networks, but it doesn’t provide network identity verification, and it became optional when the Wi-Fi Alliance controversially stripped it out of WPA3, so like so many other promising innovations in Wi-Fi, I doubt that it will ever be universally supported.

Captive Portal Hell

There are few technologies that are as user-punishing as Wi-Fi captive portals. They require ugly hacks to sort-of-work, and the constant increase in HTTP and DNS security makes them more and more of a problem. There has to be a better way, but as best as I can tell, no one is working on one.

Hotspot 2.0 has a feature called Online Sign-Up (OSU), which does address it, but only for Passpoint networks, and the big RADIUS server vendors have yet to build support for it. There is no telling if they will.

What We Keep Getting

Alright, so I’ve aired my grievances. What makes them so tiring is that so little progress has been made to resolve them. Roaming has always been a problem in Wi-Fi, junk clients continue to be manufactured and certified, infrastructure code is still a mine field, and 802.11 security still does not meet enterprise requirements.

If we look at each successive generation of Wi-Fi, you’ll see that they always delivered higher data rates, which is a welcome improvement, but in reality that has produced diminishing returns since 802.11n. 802.11ax has really pushed this to the extreme, with efficiency gains that are welcome in large public venues, but are not needed with any real urgency elsewhere. There is no end in sight to this trend. The next generation of Wi-Fi in development at the IEEE is called Extremely High Throughput. It will bring 320 MHz channel widths and 4096 QAM. These features will solve exactly zero problems in Wi-Fi. If a Wi-Fi network isn’t fast enough, this is almost always a design problem, not a protocol limitation. What use are ever higher data rates for clients that roam poorly and struggle to get connected securely in the first place? It is time that increased throughput took a backseat to improved real world client performance, stability, and security improvements.

We have a new security scheme in WPA3, and while hardening Wi-Fi against quantum computing attacks is good, I suppose, it is way down the list of priorities for most WLAN operators. Simpler, bulk provisioning is a much more tangible improvement, and would lead to improved security too. How often do we have to just give up and resort to WPA2-PSK due to client limitations, bad supplicants, and no streamlined provisioning process? It is very rare to find an enterprise WLAN that isn’t using WPA2-PSK, which is branded WPA2-Personal by the Wi-Fi Alliance because it is appropriate for use in home, consumer WLAN’s. That alone should tell you something is very wrong.

WPA3 had a new and promising device provisioning protocol (DPP) that would be nice, but its since been stripped out and dumped into an optional certification called Wi-Fi Easy Connect. I think we all know what that means for its future…

So crap clients, bad roaming, unstable WLAN infrastructure products, cumbersome enterprise security, half-baked guest Wi-Fi security, and captive portal hell are here to stay. The IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance are not prioritizing these longstanding, real world problems.

Is it any wonder that no one complains that Wi-Fi doesn’t support the CBRS band? Instead we look with excited anticipation at the promise of private LTE and 5G in the enterprise. The powers that be should take note of that lack of disappointment. We are close to the point where Wi-Fi is no longer looked to for mission critical applications that demand stability and reliability. Allowing these long standing issues to persist will cause Wi-Fi to be relegated to a best-effort, bulk traffic transport, not the wireless protocol of choice for important applications.

Organizations are signalling that they are ready to trade the high throughput of Wi-Fi (that they often don’t need) for the reliability of LTE in CBRS for those applications that are most critical. Meanwhile, IEEE continues the march towards 802.11be Extremely High Throughput with its 320 MHz channel width that will make a mess of the 6 GHz band, and 4096 QAM modulation. Features that do not solve real-world problems.