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Wireless Features

Update 4/21/2009: D-Link confirmed 1.30 removes only 802.11b support, leaves WEP support alone.

One of this year's April Fool articles was this piece by Glenn Fleishman reporting that the 802.11b standard had expired. But now it appears that D-Link wants to see if you are willing to remove 802.11b support from one of its most popular products, in return for getting bugfixes and new features.

D-Link last Tuesday posted version 1.30 firmware for its popular DIR-655 Draft 802.11n wireless router that, among bugfixes and feature additions, disabled support for 802.11b and is not downgradable. I first became aware of this via a SNB Forums post, and found confirmation in discussions in the D-Link Forums and over at dslreports.

I immediately emailed both D-Link and the Wi-Fi Alliance on Wednesday, shortly after the SNB Forum post. I asked the Alliance how disabling 802.11b affects a product's Wi-Fi Certification and whether the Alliance has any position on support for 802.11b legacy devices or end-of-life for the technology.

What the Wi-Fi Alliance Said

Within two hours, I received this response from Kelly Davis-Felner, Wi-Fi Alliance Marketing Director:

"I can't comment specifically about this product, since I am not familiar with this recent change. We'll take a look.

However, 11b support remains mandatory
[emphasis mine] for all Wi-Fi CERTIFIED products, and failure to support 11b would invalidate or prevent certification per our policies.

We're currently in a mode of monitoring the installed base and current shipments to understand when an EOL for 11b support would make sense for our certification program, but don't have any specific plans to phase it out in the near term."

What the D-Link Said

It took two days and two requests to D-Link before Joe Melfi, D-Link Associate Director of Business Solutions engaged in a series of email exchanges. In the meantime, D-Link had withdrawn the 1.30 firmware and reposted it as Beta. The Beta, however, is still non-downgradeable.

I asked D-Link to explain exactly what "Removed 802.11b" meant (the entire explanation given in the 1.30 release notes) , i.e. what functions have been removed, the reason for the change and whether 802.11b removal will become policy for all D-Link wireless routers.

D-Link's initial response appeared to be a prepared statement, which D-Link later said will probably be posted on dlinkblogs.com or in forums.dlink.com (it has not been posted at this time on either). The gist of D-Link's response is contained in this excerpt:

"Wireless suppliers frequently discuss the issues related to maintaining backward compatibility with the old and fading 802.11b standard. Providing this backward support adds complexity to the product and discontinuing it would provide users with improved performance as well as, and more importantly, significantly enhanced security. Yet, it is difficult to draw the line in the sand as to when it would be an appropriate time to consider 802.11b products as obsolete devices. If their is sufficient demand, we intend to continue providing support for 802.11b in our products. But we wonder if users would be interested in having the option to remove that functionality to have better control of their network. Statistical data shows 11b on the decline. But we would like to have more than numeric data from a report. We would like to find out what users really think. By offering this beta firmware and monitoring feedback we will get a sense of the interest by users that might see security and performance as paramount in their environment. There probably is no better way to get feedback than to give users something to experiment with. [emphasis mine] "

In follow-up exchanges, D-Link said that 1.30 originally should have been posted as a Beta release and wasn't sure why it was not. I also questioned the non-downgradeability, which resulted in this exchange:

Why is 1.30 non-downgradeable?
{JOE -->} We felt that this would give us the best feedback by those that really care about committing to a decision of whether 11b is required or not. There really is no need to load this '11b-free' version unless a user really doesn't need 11b but prefers the security and performance this beta FW provides (but we also included the latest fixes so that those users would have the same improvements as others).
This should force some interesting comments from users about whether they feel 11b compatibility is really something useful/necessary.

Tim: I don't really follow the logic here. What about customers who want the fixes and improvements, but who want to keep 11b support? What is the equivalent of 1.30 for them?
{JOE -->} Certainly, there will be a version that contains 11b that will also have those fixes. It will be posted ~a week later.

D-Link said that the reason for removal of 802.11b support is for both security, i.e. WEP and performance reasons. But I learned from the Wi-Fi Alliance that 802.11b and WEP are two different issues.

According to Kelly Davis-Felner, "WEP support is always optional for 802.11a/b/g/draft-n. Support for WEP is not mandatory in any certification". But "support for 802.11B is mandatory for A, G, and draft-n".

So, D-Link, or any Wi-Fi product manufacturer, can entirely remove WEP support on a product without affecting its Wi-Fi Certification. But should they remove 802.11b support, the Wi-Fi Certification will be invalidated.

I asked D-Link to clarify whether removing 802.11b also removes WEP support for 802.11g and draft 11n modes in the DIR-655 and had not yet received a response. I'll update, however, when I do.

Update 4/21/2009:
D-Link confirmed that 1.30 Beta removes only 802.11b support. WEP support is left intact.

Despite repeated attempts, I could not get D-Link to acknowledge that removing 802.11b support on a product invalidates Wi-Fi Certification, even if done as an after-sale change by the user. But the Alliance's statement is perfectly clear on this, whether D-Link admits it or not.

D-Link also said it has no plans to discontinue 802.11b support on the DIR-655 or any other product at this time. But they did not say that they will not run similar "feedback" exercises on other products.

Finally, as I was preparing to post this, a new SNB Forum post noted that the b notation has been removed from the Wi-Fi Certification logo shown on the DIR-655 product page. The screenshot below, which was taken today, confirms this. The data sheet and spec page also do not list 802.11b as a supported standard, although it's not clear if they ever did. I found that the DIR-825, DIR-855, DIR-615 and perhaps other draft 11n routers also don't list 802.11b as a supported standard.

DIR-655 product page

But the DIR-655 Wi-Fi Certification posted on the Wi-Fi Alliance site still shows 802.11b certification.

DIR-655 Wi-Fi Certification

I have asked D-Link for an explanation and will update when I receive it.

What I Think

I am puzzled as to what D-Link thinks it has to gain by attempting to get user feedback by removing a feature on a best-selling product that invalidates its Wi-Fi Certification, is still needed by popular products such as the Nintendo DS, DS Lite and Sony PSP and that can't be reversed. The whole exercise has been ill-conceived, poorly executed, and frankly, not worthy of a company of D-Link's stature.

I also don't know why D-Link feels that it has to work outside the industry groups that are discussing both 802.11b, and, more importantly WEP and TKIP end-of-life. Terminating support for these insecure security methods is long overdue. But their widespread use requires a long and probably multi-phase process that will need industry-wide support.

My advice is to give D-Link the feedback that it is looking for by not taking the 1.30 Beta and waiting for the upcoming firmware that has the fixes and improvements in 1.30, but not the 802.11b removal. Let's hope that this new version is also downgradeable.

I would also pay closer attention to the specs for D-Link draft 11n products if 802.11b support is important to you. Although 802.11b is currently supported in all draft 11n products (as required for Wi-Fi Certification), many spec sheets don't include 802.11b support. So it appears that D-Link is definitely leaving themselves some wiggle room here.

Finally, if D-Link, or any other vendor, tries to make you trade disabling a product feature for access to bugfixes and improvements, and especially if they make the process non-reversable, you should not take the bait and complain loudly to the company and whoever else will listen.

You can also make your feelings known to D-Link to provide the feedback that they are looking for. Best place is probably in this D-Link Forum thread, although you'll have to register to post. Otherwise you can use the Customer Feedback form.

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