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802.11ac: Today's Wi-Fi

News > 802.11ac: Today's Wi-Fi

802.11ac: Today's Wi-Fi


Everyone has heard of Wi-Fi. Not everyone has heard of 802.11ac, the current, faster standard for wireless connectivity, but it's time to get up to speed (no pun intended). Understanding the basics will help you make better decisions about upgrades.

First introduced in 2013, 802.11ac is about three times faster than the previous standard, 802.11n. Our partner Meru Networks explains: "802.11ac, also known as Gigabit Wi-Fi, is the latest Wi-Fi standard that builds upon 802.11n by improving data rates, network robustness, reliability, and RF bandwidth utilization efficiency. This evolutionary standard will be able to supply the wireless data rates and client capacity that are demanded by the increasingly mobile business community. ... 802.11ac will provide wireless data rates in excess of 1 Gbps per radio, which rivals traditional hardwired speeds."

Devices running 802.11ac - sometimes called simply AC - can communicate with 802.11n routers, but only at the latter's speed. Part of the AC advantage comes from its access to the little-used 5Ghz radio frequency spectrum. 802.11n operates in both 5 Ghz and the 2.4Ghz spectrum, the bands for cordless phones, garage-door openers and nearly every other gadget that relies on radio waves. Less interference means great speed and reliability.

Another feature of the AC standard that increases speed is beamforming. "Typically wireless signal is simply thrown out from your router equally in all directions, like ripples when throwing a stone into a pond," explains "Beamforming is different. It is built into the 802.11ac specification and is 'smart signal' which detects where connected devices are and increases signal strength specifically in their direction."

These features make AC better suited for emerging business needs, like Voice over WLAN (wireless local access network), videoconferencing and BYOD (bring your own device, referring to employee-owned smart phones and tablets). But it's important to understand that these are features of Wave 1 AC products. Wave 2 products will offer an optional feature that promises even greater speed: MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input multiple output).

"Traditional Wi-Fi is a broadcast technology," explains blog Ars Technica. "If a base station is talking to a device on the network, every other device on the same network has to wait its turn. So while typical 802.11ac offers fast headline speeds of 1.3Gbps or more, that bandwidth ends up being shared. If there are three computers connected to the base station, then on average they each get only 325Mbps of bandwidth."

MU-MIMO, however, means that a router can communicate with up to four devices at a time. This, coupled with AC's capacity to support up to eight antennas per router, offers the promise of theoretical speeds of nearly 7Gbps. In layman's terms: that's fast.

Wave 2 devices were shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show and will start rolling out this year. So: buy now or wait? Like any device using new technology, Wave 2 products won't be cheap. And if you'd rather wait but need to upgrade soon, be sure to check with the manufacturer that the AC device you're buying will be compatible with Wave 2 technology. And always look for the Wi-Fi Alliance logo; it ensures that the device is approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which develops the standards.

If you'd like to see if your current Wi-Fi is up to speed, contact us.