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Chinese iPhone Has No Wi-Fi

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The combination of mobile broadband and Wi-Fi in the iPhone has long been one of its selling points, and seamless data roaming between cell and Wi-Fi, location discovery, and free access to Wi-Fi networks operated by cellular carriers in some countries make Wi-Fi seem essential. Not so in China. The iPhone model for sale by China Unicom lacks Wi-Fi. This was widely rumored months before the deal was in place for China Unicom to offer the iPhone.

The reason for this omission is the Chinese government's efforts since 2003 - in fits and starts - to promote a proprietary security standard for 802.11 devices called WAPI, which stands, in a cumbersome fashion, for "WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure."

For the first few years, non-Chinese firms were required to partner with one of a handful of Chinese companies that had access to the WAPI specification, and many of these companies were tied to the Chinese military, which has active control of a number of businesses separate from the rest of government. Foreign firms protested, because they would have had to disclose significant portions of their intellectual property in a country that has a mixed record in honoring patents and trade secrets.

The issue was significant enough that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell raised WAPI in trade talks in 2004 because if required it would be a bar for U.S. firms to sell Wi-Fi products in the country. The WAPI requirement may also violate World Trade Organization rules, although that hasn't been tested. China attempted to get WAPI approved by standards group ISO, but that effort failed largely because the group representing China wouldn't provide the spec's details - kind of a problem for a proposed standard. China was recently invited to introduce WAPI to ISO once more, although it's hard to see how it has a better chance. (The IEEE 802.11i security standard was accepted instead of WAPI.)

A second concern about WAPI, one that I've raised for years in my writing at Wi-Fi Networking News, is that one must presume that a proprietary standard that hasn't been subjected to full disclosure and outside scrutiny includes backdoors for government access to secured sessions. The Wi-Fi approved WPA/WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) has no known generic exploits, and can't be deciphered over the air. While WAPI may be completely secure, this can't be determined, nor does that conform with the Chinese government's history of Internet oversight.

There is some suspicion that WAPI's authentication aspect, in which a login would be required to join a network securely, was partly desirable to track users, too. This would eliminate the "problem" of untrackable connections to Wi-Fi hotspots, coupled with security that would prevent local interception.

In the last few years, China hasn't pushed WAPI with the same vigor, and has made noises about backing down. However, its official status appears to still be in place, and other mobile phones in China have WAPI installed. This AP story says that Wi-Fi was banned in China, but it's apparently possible and straightforward to buy Wi-Fi access points without WAPI in China, and Wi-Fi is in wide use.

Because Apple already has its phones manufactured in China, there appears to be wide agreement that future versions of the iPhone will have Wi-Fi with WAPI as an option.

The Associated Press estimates as many as two million unlocked iPhones brought in from other countries are in use in China already, and none of those use WAPI.

 

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Comments about Chinese iPhone Has No Wi-Fi
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I am disappointed but not surprised that apple "kowtowed" to chinese demands to take out wifi. But there are enough high income consumers that will want to buy the iPhone, even with it's ridiculously high price.
Rick Cricow  2009-10-31 11:46
Apple is not 'kowtow'ing to China any more than they are when they design a product to meet FCC standards in the U.S. or other standards set by other governments. I suspect iPhones sold in Canada have both English and French language, but this doesn't mean Apple caved in on some idealogical standard; it merely shows they obeyed the laws of the country in which they sell the product.

And, I'm pretty sure I've used Wifi in China. I've been there several times recently, and always am able to connect in hotels and airports, but I can't say for certain whether it's always been by 10baseT cable. I will say that many websites I normally look at, are unreachable in China.
SeaFox  2009-11-03 02:14
Think Different.

You COULD look at it as rather than kowtowing to the Chinese government's insistence that Apple add their snitch security standard, Apple said "well screw you, we'd rather leave out Wi-Fi completely".

Keep in mind we're talking about the country where the iPhone is manufactured. If people want a "real" one they can get one pretty damn easily. And with the iPhone now actually legally available in the country, being seen with one wont look suspicious to the police anymore. You can't tell if an iPhone is the WiFi-less Chinese version or an "illict" rest-of-the world-one from the outside.
Stephen  2009-11-03 08:54
FCC standards aren't used to censor and supress millions of people.
Glenn Fleishman  2009-11-03 09:11
To play devil's advocate, I would note that China has long been suspicious of adopting standards created by other governments and companies based in other countries because this gives them less control. You would think this might perversely lead to greater adoption of open source and free software, which could be examined, but the reverse course has been taken: creating sometimes not terrific Chinese-only standards that the rest of the world never adopts, and which increases cost for Chinese consumers.
SeaFox  2009-11-04 00:59
Not sure what you're trying to say with your reply, unless it's that the Chinese gov't ISN'T trying to push WAPI because it has built in backdoors for them to spy on people, to which I'd have to reply:

LOLRU4REAL? We're talking about a country that doesn't have freedom of speech, OF COURSE they would be able to track down dissidents with it. Just as Glenn Fleishman points out, if this is about avoiding foreign tech they don't have control over, why don't they use Open Source? Because if they use open source everyone would be able to see what they do to it!

The other part is that with the full WAPI spec only held by a few (state blessed) companies, Apple is forced to partner with a company they otherwise would not be doing business with. It's yet another scheme for someone so get a slice of the iPhone revenue pie.
Paul Collins  2009-11-01 17:22
Great story, Glenn. Nice to have a much more complete picture than AP provided. Looking forward to the next thousand issues of TidBITS.