Wi-fi’s presence has grown quickly over the past 15 years. It’s difficult to go somewhere and not end up in range of someone’s network (even if it’s password-protected.) This explosive growth in wireless networking has created two problems:
-How do we ensure that the network has the capacity and speed to allow us to connect our phones, smart watches, tablets, laptops, televisions, and streaming devices, and still have enough speed to use them? And;
-How do we ensure that any transmissions sent over this network are secure?
The first point has traditionally been covered by a set of wireless standards defined in IEEE 802.11. Depending on how long you’ve known of Wi-fi, you may recognize 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, or 802.11ac.
Each of these 802.11 standards represents a set of technologies which is used to make wireless networking operate. It defines transmission speeds, how frequencies are used, how signals operate, and other under-the-hood details. You’d be correct if you associate a certain 802.11 standard with a specific network speed (typically measured in Megabits per second (MBPS)):
- 11 (the original) – 1-2mbps (only 2.4ghz)
- 11a – 54mbps maximum (5ghz)
- 11b – 11mbps maximum, but backwards compatible with previous standards
- 11g – 54mbps maximum, but range of 150 feet (2.4ghz)
- 11n – 600mbps maximum, supports 2.4ghz and 5ghz)
- 11ac – 1 Gigabits per second (GBPS) maximum, supports 5ghz
Recently, IEEE has set out the definition for 802.11ax, the newest Wi-fi standard. It has:
- A current top speed of 11 Gbps (based on what was shown at CES 2018)
- Operability in the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz ranges
- Inclusion of technologies to allow for additional efficiency and better use of spectrum, thereby decreasing congestion
In simpler terms – 802.11ax will let more devices connect to your wireless network, and communicate much, much faster than is currently possible.
This standard will be publicly released in 2019, likely leading to increased adoption in 2020.
The second point has almost exclusively been covered by a standard called WPA2 (WEP, it’s predecessor, has a brief and insecure history).
Traditionally, if you wanted to break communications using WPA2, you’d need to capture a device connecting to a wireless network and sharing keys, and then run a group of passwords against that “handshake”. If you managed to guess the right password, then you’d be able to not only decrypt that communication, but previous communications, and authenticate to the wireless network.
Further, Wi-fi Protected Setup (WPS), was a feature which allowed you to connect to a wireless network even more easily. By pushing a button on the router itself, you’d be able to connect a device without having to enter a password. This feature often made wireless networks more vulnerable, as earlier implementations allowed attackers to brute force the PIN that WPS relied on to operate.
WPA3 will allow for a larger 192-bit key, which will make breaking communications more difficult. It also uses a more secure handshake to keep attackers from recording this conversation and breaking the wireless password later.
To replace WPS, a feature called “Easy Connect” is being designed, which allows for easier connection of devices by use of a QR code.
Both of these technologies will be rolled out in the coming years and will likely be in new consumer products by 2020. Overall, these two improvements will not only make Wi-fi more secure, but faster and capable of handling more devices. However, time will tell if these are true security improvements, or if more flaws are discovered which leads to compromise.