The Wi-Fi Alliance expects to certify by May its WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) set of specifications in the first of several efforts to provide greater security to users of high-speed wireless networks, said Andrea Vocale, a technical expert with the alliance, speaking Monday at a news conference at the CeBIT trade show here.

WPA is a subset of the 802.11i security standard, which has yet to be approved by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

The alliance, launched in 1999 as a nonprofit organization to certify interoperability of IEEE 802.11 products, expects approval from the standards body as early as the third quarter of this year, according to Brian Grim, marketing director for the alliance. Around a month after that, the group will begin its certification program, ensuring that all Wi-Fi products of its members are interoperable, Grim said. Products with 802.11i-standardized security features should be available later in the fourth quarter, he said.

Once approved and certified, the 802.11i standard will be called WPA2 and will be backward compatible with WPA, Grim said.

The alliance also expects the IEEE to approve the faster 802.11g standard by June or August, said Vocale, who is also business development manager of wireless networking at the U.K. subsidiary of Cisco Systems Inc. "Once the standard has been approved, we can move ahead quickly with the certification," he said.

The first "unplug fest," which gives developers and other groups time to work with the 802.11g standard, has already taken place, Vocale said, declining to comment on the results. The goal of the "fest" is to work out technical bugs.

The 802.11g standard, operating in the 2.4GHz band, provides speeds up to 54M bps (bits per second). It will be backward compatible to the widely used 802.11b standard, operating in the same band but offering speeds up to 11M bps.

The 802.11a standard, which occupies the 5GHz band, also provides speeds up to 54M bps.

In a move to simplify the names of the various products, the Wi-Fi Alliance aims to drop the 802.11 a, b and g classifications and replace them with the frequency and speed of each wireless access service in its new Wi-Fi zone program informing users of certified Wi-Fi locations.

A Wi-Fi Zone sign posted at relevant hot-spot locations will show arrows pointing to the available wireless services. The services include 11M bps and 54M bps transmission in the 2.4GHz range, and 54M bps service in the 5GHz range.

In addition, the Wi-Fi Alliance officially opened its zone-finding search engine on Wednesday, Vocale said. The search engine, found at the alliance's Web site, will list all hotspots that meet specific criteria to ensure quality service, Vocale said. "We've just started to collect information on the many locations around the world, so what you see in our database today is just the beginning," he said.

The U.S. and Europe each have between 2,000 and 3,000 public hotspots and Asia around 5,000, Vocale said. "But this year will be the year of the wireless Internet," he said. "We expect many more thousands."

As for any one of the 802.11 standards pushing the other aside, Vocale said "each has its own advantages." The 802.11a standard, which some experts believe could be eclipsed by the equally fast 802.11g, could find its niche in the home market, supporting video streaming and multimedia applications, he said.

Chip makers will likely put all three 802.11 standards on the same silicon and allow Wi-Fi equipment vendors to activate whichever standard or standards they wish, Grim said.

In Europe and Asia, Wi-Fi will be a "service provider's play," with smaller network companies likely to dominate the U.S. market, Vocale said.