Tactical Advice

Why Businesses Should Switch to 802.11ac Wi-Fi

Better performance is just one of a number factors that should be driving SMBs to take up the latest Wi-Fi standard.
This story appears in the Winter 2014 issue of BizTech Magazine.
Time for SMBs to Adopt 802.11ac Wi-Fi
Credit: iStock/Thinkstock

According to ABI Research, merely 200,000 of the 43.3 million Wi-Fi customer premises equipment (access points) shipped in the first quarter of 2013 were 802.11ac-ready. By the end of this year, only about 1 million 11ac units will have shipped, despite the obvious benefits of the standard. Perhaps this lag has to do with uncertainty over the specification’s final approval date (late 2013), but it may also correlate with current 11ac products being the first wave of the technology.

All businesses struggle with deciding whether a new technology is a must-have business enabler or if it’s better to take a pass and wait. With 802.11ac, the latest update to the Wi-Fi standard, the waiting is over. There are plenty of reasons to pull the trigger now, including:

Bandwidth: The traditional 2.4-gigahertz Wi-Fi spectrum is known for high levels of network congestion and poor Wi-Fi performance. The 5GHz band, where 802.11ac operates, is relatively traffic free, however. It also offers nonoverlapping, higher bandwidth for higher performance and reliability.

Speed: In testing across multiple leading router models, 802.11ac averages about 250 megabits per second while moving TCP traffic across a large suburban home. Under the same conditions, using the same dual-band routers, 2.4GHz 802.11n averages only about 91Mbps.

Extensibility: Future 11ac improvements (all backward-compatible) will include stand­‑ ardized beamforming, a method for synchronizing antenna transmissions targeted at specific receiver points for higher performance. This, combined with higher antenna counts and the provision for 160-megahertz channels, should bring the new wireless standard in line with wired-class Gigabit Ethernet throughput.

Certification: The Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying 802.11ac devices last summer in advance of the spec’s final approval. For those who might worry about a repeat of the “Draft N” debacle of a few years back, in which vendors sold hardware that was not compatible with the final 802.11n specification, certification should allay such fears.

“The IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance have been involved with all chipset providers for years, ensuring that devices entering the market will work with each other,” says Jason Owen, CEO of Amped Wireless, a provider of consumer and business wireless products.

Gaining Speed

The first wave of 11ac products top out at a 1.3-gigabit-per-second theoretical throughput rate. The second wave of products, which incorporates the upgrades mentioned above, promise to have much higher throughput (Quantenna Communications QSR1000 wave 2 chipset specifies 1.7Gbps). Not coincidentally, ABI forecasts more than 3.5 billion 11ac chipsets shipping by 2018, with nearly half of those going into smartphones.

Naturally, this may lead to a repeat of some of today’s 2.4GHz congestion issues, but 11ac will be a lot smarter. “[802.11ac] access points should be able to see competing access points and ramp down to smaller channel sizes to avoid problems,” says Peter Cooney, ABI Research practice director. “For the enterprise space or certain small cell locations using Wi-Fi, the ability to use larger channels means faster speeds and therefore more capacity and devices at the same time.”

Already, among smartphones, the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4 and Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 support 802.11ac, and anyone who has tried to stream high-definition games or video to a phone or tablet knows that single-antenna 802.11n often proves insufficient. ABI expects to find 11ac in 75 percent of mobile handsets by 2015.

High-definition media will largely drive consumer demand for 11ac. HD video can span from 50Mbps (Blu-ray) up to 200Mbps of bandwidth per stream. In the same vein, many businesses require higher wireless throughput for sharing HD content among workgroups, for telepresence and for supplying lag-less conferencing streams to many concurrent users.

In time, 802.11ad (the follow-up to 802.11ac) will reach theoretical speeds of up to 7Gbps on the 2.4GHz, 5.0GHz and 60GHz bands. But such products are years away. Until then, 802.11ac addresses immediate consumer and business needs now, and is set for rapid expansion across the entire Wi-Fi ecosystem.

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About the Author

William Van Winkle

William Van Winkle has been a full-time tech writer and author since 1998. He specializes in a wide range of coverage areas, including unified communications, virtualization, cloud computing, storage solutions and more. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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