The implementation of a Chinese security standard for wireless networking could undermine efforts to develop a global standard for wireless local area networks (WLANs), according to a senior executive at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

In a letter to Chinese government officials, Paul Nikolich, chairman of the IEEE 802 Local and Metropolitan Area Network Standards Committee, warned that this would drive up the cost of networking equipment for end users.

The Standardisation Administration of China (SAC) announced the adoption of China's WLAN standard, called GB15629.11-2003, in May 03. While WLAN equipment sold in China is required to comply with this standard from 1 December, a transition period has been granted that extends the compliance deadline for some WLAN products until 1 June 04.

The Chinese WLAN standard is similar in many ways to IEEE's 802.11 wireless networking standard — commonly known as Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi — but it has one crucial difference: it uses a different security protocol called WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI). WAPI is not part of the 802.11 standard, which relies on Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP).

The existence of two different standards could cause the market for wireless networking equipment to splinter in two, according to Nikolich.

"Mandatory implementation of the WAPI protocols would unnecessarily fracture the world market for WLAN products," he wrote in a letter to SAC Chairman Li Zhonghai and Wang Xudong, China's minister of information industry.

"We are concerned that mandatory use of the standard would prohibit the use of 802.11 standard products and thereby limit choice and increase costs to users," added Nikolich.

China's adoption of WAPI is meant to shore up the security of wireless networks, a concern shared by IEEE. WEP can be easily broken and this has prompted the development of a new IEEE standard, 802.11i.