When we hear “wireless,” most of us will immediately associate it with “Wi-Fi” — the 802.11 WLAN standard we know, (usually) love and use daily both at home and in the office. But wireless encompasses so much more than just traditional Wi-Fi, and the burst of digital transformation combined with enterprises’ escalating security demands is proving ripe for the emergence of novel wireless use cases and, therefore novel, sometimes repurposed, wireless technologies.
Here’s a look at the top three wireless trends that I believe will shape the face of network security architecture in the enterprise.
New Wi-Fi Standards And Security
While wireless extends beyond it, Wi-Fi is still the leading technology for our hyperconnected and very mobile world, so it’s worth noting two significant changes every organization should be prepared for, starting with the new Wi-Fi security standard.
Our dirty little secret in Wi-Fi is that we’ve been limping along with the same security standards for 15 years — eons in the context of the rapid advancements in cryptography and security protocols. Announced in early 2018, the latest Wi-Fi Protected Access version (WPA3) is just now making its way through all the enterprise Wi-Fi products. The new security standard brings several notable improvements for enterprise security architecture, including all three types of networks: enterprise-secured (802.1X), pre-shared key (PSK-based networks) and open networks for guest portals.
In addition to much better application of cryptography, stronger algorithms, forced mutual authentication and even encryption for open guest networks, the new security suite promises enhanced resiliency by securing Wi-Fi management traffic and preventing downgrade attacks that are common vectors for both penetration testers as well as malicious attackers.
The good news is, WPA3 is designated for continuous improvement, ensuring organizations will have enhanced protection and new security controls as the threat landscape changes. The bad news is, taking advantage of WPA3 has some gotchas when transitioning from legacy WPA2 — meaning security and IT leaders will need to ensure their architects are well educated and trained on the newer technology.
Also, for IT teams considering the latest Wi-Fi 6E technology (6th generation Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, over the newly-opened 6GHz spectrum), WPA3 holds a special meaning, as it will be required for those deployments; there will be no backward compatibility or transition modes for security.
Ultimately, WPA3 addresses countless vulnerabilities and is something your organization should explore and implement as soon as you can, but it does take thoughtful planning and coordination. There’s no “easy button” here.
Private 5G Cellular
You may have heard the terms “CBRS,” “Private LTE” and, more recently, “Private 5G.” All of these describe private cellular, which effectively takes cellular technology and repurposes it for use on your enterprise local area network (LAN).
The availability of private cellular solutions is new, especially for true LAN-integrated solutions, which have appeared only in the last couple of years. That, combined with the FCC’s very recent opening of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) radio spectrum for this purpose, means few are up to speed on the benefits of the technology and offerings in this space.
Private cellular promises an exceptional and affordable platform for supporting both mission-critical wireless applications, such as those in healthcare and manufacturing, as well as digital transformation projects, such as IoT, facilities automation and automatic guided vehicles. It solves almost every challenge enterprises experience with traditional Wi-Fi: security and identity, coverage range, quality and resiliency.
If you consider for a moment your own experience with cellular versus Wi-Fi technologies, you can begin to understand how transformative this may be. It’s a technology almost every enterprise can benefit from. From a security perspective, it fits perfectly with newer secure IoT and zero trust initiatives. As a technology or security leader, if it’s not on your radar yet, it should be. It eases operational challenges for IT and checks a lot of boxes for security compliance.
Unlike some of the more esoteric wireless technologies, private cellular isn’t likely to fall by the wayside. Already, thousands of the most popular technology brands have incorporated CBRS, or band 48, capabilities into devices ranging from cellphones to laptops, tablets, handheld scanners and an assortment of IoT devices. Plus, throughout the pandemic, private cellular has been the go-to solution for municipalities and schools needing to extend the internet into homes to ensure equitable access to learning and resources.
Other Wireless For IoT
As mentioned earlier, Wi-Fi isn’t the only wireless technology, and often it’s not the best choice for IoT connectivity, which has a specific set of needs that Wi-Fi just isn’t designed to meet. If you’re planning digital transformation or operational projects that rely on IoT or IoT-type devices such as facilities management or sensors, there are other types of wireless you may want to consider.
Private cellular mentioned above is a great option for IoT devices that can be fitted with either a cellular SIM or eSIM (physical or digital subscriber identity module cards), but for the volume of other “things” needing connectivity, there are many other options.
For shorter-range, in-room, in-building needs like asset tracking and location services, organizations should consider Bluetooth and/or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). For longer-range protocols specifically designed for machine-to-machine and IoT endpoints, look at the suite of Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) options, which include technologies like LoRa and Sigfox, plus IoT-focused cellular such as LTE-M and NB-IoT. Finally, you may consider Low-Rate Wireless Personal Area Networks (LR-WPAN), usually based on IEEE 802.15.4, and include overlay protocols like Zigbee, ISA100.11a, WirelessHART, 6loWPAN and Thread. All of these wireless technologies are designed to meet IoT-specific needs for appropriate distance, battery preservation and lower bandwidth data.
If you’re a technology or security leader and Wi-Fi has been your only foray into the wild world of wireless, hang on, because it’s promising to be a crazy ride in 2022.
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