802.11ac Encryption Upgrade


The security features provided by the IEEE 802.11 standard haven’t changed much since the 802.11i amendment was ratified in 2004, which is more commonly known by its Wi-Fi Alliance certification name WPA2. 802.11w protected management frames were introduced in 2009, but it is only recently that Wi-Fi chipsets for client devices have included support for it. WPA2 introduced the robust CCMP encryption protocol as a replacement for the compromised WEP-based encryption schemes of the past. CCMP utilizes stronger 128 bit AES encryption keys. As a general rule of thumb, if you aren’t using CCMP on a Wi-Fi network designed for security, you’re doing it wrong. It’s been out for a long time and older protocols have well-established weaknesses.

11acHowever, there are some new encryption changes in the 802.11ac amendment which have mostly flown under the radar. Besides 256 QAM, wider channels, and MU-MIMO, 802.11ac now includes support for 256 bit AES keys and the GCMP encryption protocol. Galois Counter Mode Protocol is a more efficient and performance-friendly encryption protocol than CCMP.

A few interesting nuggets from section 11.4 of the 802.11ac amendment:

The AES algorithm is defined in FIPS PUB 197-2001. All AES processing used within CCMP uses AES with either a 128-bit key (CCMP-128) or a 256-bit key (CCMP-256).


CCMP-128 processing expands the original MPDU size by 16 octets, 8 octets for the CCMP Header field and 8 octets for the MIC field. CCMP-256 processing expands the original MPDU size by 24 octets, 8 octets for the CCMP Header field, and 16 octets for the MIC field.

By the way, you can download the 802.11ac amendment or the entire 802.11-2012 standard from the IEEE here for free. For more on these security changes read sections and 11.4 of the 802.11ac amendment.

It seems odd that these changes were included in the 802.11ac amendment, and not in a separate security-focussed amendment like 802.11w and 802.11i. Nothing wrong with it, just unexpected. I’m curious to see if the 802.11ax amendment includes security changes as well.

Why the addition of 256 bit AES keys? It could have something to do with a few chinks in the armor of 128 bit AES keys. The current attacks appear to be impractical, but future attacks that take advantage of quantum computing may put 128 bit AES keys at risk. NIST thinks that larger key sizes are needed to defend symmetric AES keys like those used in WPA2 against quantum computer attacks, which they say will be operational within the next 20 years. I’ll take their word for it.

Because the amendment only specifies CCMP-128 as mandatory for RSN compliance, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see CCMP-256/GCMP-256 in use anytime soon. Further, enabling 256 bit cipher suites effectively disables support for all non-802.11ac clients as well as 802.11ac clients that only support the mandatory cipher suites (most of them?). That’s because CCMP-256 and GCMP-256 pairwise keys are only compatible with 256 bit group keys, breaking backwards compatibility with legacy clients. There are also a lot of 802.11n clients out there that aren’t going away anytime soon, so actually deploying CCMP-256/GCMP-256 will require a separate CCMP-256/GCMP-256-only SSID. Excited yet?

Further, I can’t find any documentation that suggests that infrastructure vendors have implemented CCMP-256/GCMP-256 at all, just a few slide decks here and there with an overview of the changes. These cipher suites appear to be optional, so I wonder if any VHT clients or AP’s actually support them today, and when they will in the future. The Linux Wi-Fi configuration API cfg80211 and driver framework mac80211 have added software support for it. That’s about all the implementation I have found. Perhaps PCS compliance or Wi-Fi Alliance certification will eventually force the issue, or perhaps it will go the way of 802.11n Tx beamforming and never be implemented. There are a lot obstacles to overcome before 256 bit keys become practical.

However, a VHT client can negotiate a GCMP-128 RSNA within a BSS that uses a backwards-compatible CCMP-128 group key, and the 802.11 standard does support multiple pairwise cipher suites within a BSS (remember TSN’s?). That allows the GCMP-128 pairwise cipher suite to be used alongside everyday CCMP-128 pairwise and group keys on real, production networks.

To tell if a BSS is using one of the new cipher suites in a packet capture, look at a beacon frame’s RSN information element. The cipher suite selector is always 00-0F-AC for the CCMP/GCMP encryption protocols, it’s the cipher suite type that distinguishes between the specific cipher suites. For example, 00-0F-AC:4 is the default CCMP-128, 00-0F-AC:9 indicates GCMP-256 and 00-0F-AC:10 indicates CCMP-256. Group keys for a BSS with protected management frames have their own suite type numbers. Look for multiple pairwise cipher suites to find support for the new stuff. Here’s the table of the new cipher suites. I’m on the lookout for 00-0F-AC:8 (GCMP-128), but I’ve yet to find a beacon frame with it advertised.

Table 8-99—Cipher suite selectors


Suite type  Meaning
00-0F-AC  4 CCMP-128 – default pairwise cipher suite and default group cipher suite for data frames in an RSNA
 00-0F-AC  6  BIP-CMAC-128—default group management cipher suite in an RSNA with management frame protection enabled
 00-0F-AC  8  GCMP-128 – default for a DMG STA
 00-0F-AC  9  GCMP-256
 00-0F-AC  10  CCMP-256
 00-0F-AC  11  BIP-GMAC-128
 00-0F-AC  12  BIP-GMAC-256
 00-0F-AC  13  BIP-CMAC-256

Interesting note that GCMP-128 is the default for a DMG STA, which is a directional multi-gigabit station defined in the 802.11ad amendment for operation in the 60 GHz band.

The standard limits the mixing of cipher suites so that the key sizes of the pairwise and group keys must match, and GCMP group keys can only be used with GCMP pairwise keys.



This is How Wi-Fi Actually Works

I decided to write this blog because there appears to be a very common misunderstanding about how Wi-Fi works among end-users and even many network administrators as well. Instead of repeating myself, I can share this link with folks that need a little lesson in 802.11 operation.

Wi-Fi is does not work like AM/FM broadcast radio.

Well, in some ways it does, Wi-Fi radios transmit and receive radio frequency energy (RF) just like AM/FM stations do, but it’s operation is much more complex. If you are stuck in the AM/FM radio analogy, you’ll make several mistakes with Wi-Fi, such as:

  • Coverage is considered, not capacity. Again, if Wi-Fi were a one-way radio broadcast like AM/FM radio, you’d only need to provide a strong “Wi-Fi signal” for everything to work well. This leads you down this next path.
  • The “Wi-Fi signal” (using this term might be a tell that the person speaking is stuck in the AM/FM radio analogy) is too low, so crank up the AP’s transmit power to make it louder.
  • Every problem is thought of as an infrastructure problem, client radios are not considered when troubleshooting.
  • Getting hung up on the vendor’s name that is on the access point, without considering what is much more crucial, the overall design that went into the network.

How Wi-Fi Actually Works

Wi-Fi is not a one-way broadcast from AP to clients like AM/FM radio. This is not how Wi-Fi works:

Nope. Not like this.


It’s a network. The AP and clients connected to it must all be able to transmit and receive to and from each other, more like this:

Note that while the intended destination of a transmitted frame is usually just one other radio, real RF transmissions radiate in all directions, and are heard by all clients.


Because they are all operating on the same channel, each client or AP must wait for the others to stop transmitting before it can transmit. It works just like Walkie Talkie radios. Only one radio can transmit at a time, everyone else must listen and wait. Additionally, they all need to be close enough to hear each other so that they do not transmit overtop of each other, causing interference that corrupts the communications. The channel they are using is what’s called a shared medium.

If they can’t all hear each other, they will transmit overtop of each other which results in corrupted frames (not packets, Wi-Fi operates at layer 2) that must be retransmitted. The bigger the cell, the worse this problem becomes (the hidden node problem). So when you crank up the transmit power of an AP to increase its coverage, you exacerbate this problem, because the AP is now serving clients that are further apart from one and other.

In many networks, the majority of Wi-Fi clients are smartphones with low-power radios and meager antennas. They already have difficulty hearing other clients further away in the cell. For networks like this, performance can be greatly improved by lowering the transmit power of the AP rather than increasing it.

Further, because the channel is a shared-medium, it has limited capacity. There is only so much available capacity to transmit in a single channel. Faster clients can transmit, well faster, and therefore use less of that capacity, known as airtime. Older or cheaper clients that are slower use more airtime to transmit the same amount of data. It doesn’t matter what vendor’s name is on the access point, airtime is airtime. Once a channel is saturated, that’s it. You can’t add more clients to it without leading to degraded performance. You can’t alter the laws of physics. At this point you need to add another AP to utilize the capacity of a different channel, or replace slow clients with faster ones.

Regardless, it’s worthwhile to intuitively understand the nature of Wi-Fi networks, so that these common pitfalls can be avoided. Many other Wi-Fi best practices that I haven’t outlined here stem from this foundational knowledge. Based on this, can you think of other things that might affect Wi-Fi performance?


This is a simplification of 802.11 operation meant to give those new to the subject a casual understanding of how it works. Sometimes 802.11 frames are broadcast, one-way-only, from the AP to all clients in the network. Some management frames and broadcast frames from the wired network are broadcast this way. The important point to remember is that this is the exception, not the rule, and if all clients cannot hear each other, there is still the possibility that this broadcast traffic could be corrupted by another client transmitting over it.

Channel Planning isn’t Easy for Algorithms

If you’ve ever had to create a manual channel plan where spectrum is scarce, you know how hard it is to get it right. You run out of virgin spectrum, then the difficult choice of channel reuse is encountered. Often, what looks acceptable on an architectural plan, doesn’t hold up to post-deployment validation. Two AP’s 6 classrooms away on the same channel can hear each other at a loud and clear -65 dBm RSSI. Reuse the same channel in the classroom directly above, and the signal disappears below the noise floor. An extra inch of concrete make all the difference. To get it right, you have test, change, check, test, change, check, etc.

A 2.4Ghz channel plan

Given the challenge, it’s no surprise that I’ve never encountered an automatic channel selection algorithm that produced better results. At least, not in high density designs where spectrum is scarce, which is more and more just about everything I design. AP’s directly adjacent to one and other end up on the same channel, blasting away at max transmit power.

Speaking of power, I’ve also never encountered an algorithm that satisfactorily handled transmit power control in a high density network. They always turn things up WAY too high. As in, I’m manually taking AP’s that were auto-set from 12-20 dBm down to 4-6 dBm to shrink their cells away from the AP’s that share their channel. That can mean a 10x reduction in power! And even when power levels are auto-set to an acceptable level, I’ve yet to meet an algorithm that proportionally adjusts an AP’s receive sensitivity to accommodate the smaller cell.

Another thing algorithms don’t do well is handle DFS channels. I use DFS channels in many high density designs, but there are always some clients that don’t support them. The best thing to do in that case is to evenly distribute DFS channels throughout the WLAN, and only use them where AP density would otherwise cause non-DFS channel overlap. In those environments I like to alternate non-DFS channels with DFS channels so that clients without DFS support are still within range of a 5 GHz radio they can use. My experience with channel selection algorithms has been that a group of adjacent of AP’s may all be set to a DFS channel, creating a 5 Ghz dead-zone for clients that don’t support DFS channels.

What gives?

This is all too bad because auto channel/power features would be ideal as it dynamically adjusts to changes in the RF environment. A neighbor puts up a new AP on one of your channels and, without intervention, the algorithm moves your AP to clean spectrum elsewhere. In urban environments, this is a highly desirable feature because there is so much RF in your environment that is out of your control.

Every WLAN vendor offers automatic channel/power selection. They all ticked that box a long time ago. But who’s got an algorithm that actually works?