WAPI makes a comeback

10 Apr 2006

Just when foreign vendors thought they had slain the beast, WAPI has leapt off the slab to put a fright into the tech sector. In a move that has flat-footed the US IT industry, the Chinese Wi-Fi security protocol is now mandated for all Chinese government agencies from June 1.

Two years ago, the Americans thought they had won the battle by banishing WAPI to the IEEE standards committees. Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi stood by the side of then-US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick as he announced that China would seek to make WAPI encryption 802.11-compatible.

But on December 30, with defeat in the foreign-dominated IEEE inevitable, the government announced its new policy, citing national security.

Last month it set up a new 22-member WAPI alliance, with local heavyweights Lenovo and Huawei among its membership.

Now Inside Line thinks WAPI is a bad idea. It is backdoor protectionism with more than a whiff of xenophobia.

But by invoking national security the Chinese have made a political end-run around the US. The Americans have only themselves to blame. The Bush Administration has crashed through all sorts of political barriers at home and abroad by invoking national security.

Make no mistake about China's determination to implement WAPI. As Beijing's IT Time Weekly magazine put it in an editorial: 'It is clear to see, the government's determination to support WAPI has not wavered.'

Normal battle

At one level this seems a normal standards battle. The IEEE incumbents, led by Intel, have used their industry muscle to block the challenger.

The China Broadband Wireless IP Standards Working Group (BWIPS) denounced the decision and called for an inquiry into IEEE's processes, claiming members spread disinformation about WAPI.

Yep, sounds like a normal standards battle, though. Inside Line is not entirely clear why WAPI can't be included in the 802.11 standard. Intel Asia-Pacific representatives say the firm would not comment on the issue.

The IT Industry Council, which represents Intel, IBM, Microsoft and others, declined to respond to repeated inquiries. The Washington lobby group has led the battle against WAPI for the past two and a half years.

But it's worth understanding the context of Beijing's support for WAPI. In the last six months the Chinese government has unveiled a new campaign for technology independence, dubbed 'independent innovation.'

Of course this targets everything from biotech to aerospace, although TD-SCDMA is a pretty good example of Chinese 'independent innovation.' It offers an advantage to local comms manufacturers as well as a way of avoiding foreign licensing fees.

Yet, while WAPI looks to be a fait accompli as official policy, there's no certainty it will become ubiquitous across China.

For one thing, it's only 'recommended' for government agencies. The central government's writ doesn't necessarily run to every CIO in every department in every national government ministry; after all, WAPI gear is going to be more expensive than international standard equipment.

As for the provincial and municipality governments, not to mention SMEs, well, fuggedaboudit. Large corporations that deal with the central government will find it hard to avoid deploying WAPI.

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