802.11ac is the next standard for wireless networks, which some are hailing as a silver bullet that will solve the well-documented problems of today’s Wi-Fi. Range, reliability, power consumption and download speeds are all expected to be improved with the arrival of 802.11ac, which is due to be ratified towards the end of 2013. But what exactly is it? And how should businesses prepare for its adoption?
Often referred to as 5G Wi-Fi, 802.11ac promises faster wireless that will match the speed and reliability of cable connections by boosting available bandwidth, benefiting users both in business and in the home.
To achieve this, 802.11ac will use wider communication channels than 802.11n – currently the most widely used form of Wi-Fi – allowing signals to be spread over a much broader spectrum. Transmission will also be carried over up to eight spatial streams rather than the current four, increasing the data transmission rate and allowing more efficient use of the data spectrum. Further, 802.11ac employs enhanced high-density modulation techniques to boost signal capacity. Put simply, all of this means one thing: faster connection speeds.
Initially, 802.11ac products will only support up to three streams, due to the need for them to be backwards-compatible with current technology. But that still implies a potential maximum speed of 1.3Gbit/s, much faster than the 450Mbit/s offered by 802.11n devices using the same number of spatial streams.
Antennae will be upgraded in 802.11ac devices, improving range and reliability. Routers will contain up to eight antennae and use beam-forming technology – sensory arrays that provide directional signal transmission – to locate a remote device and strengthen the appropriate antennae to boost performance to that device.
So, 802.11ac promises big improvements over current systems, but have businesses been preparing for it? A recent survey by Computing asked over 100 IT managers if their organisation was planning for the technology and if so, to what extent.
Just over one third of those surveyed (35 per cent) said that their organisation is actively monitoring the development of 802.11ac, while a further 16 per cent stated they’re waiting for the new wireless technology to become more readily available before implementation. Nine per cent will act once it has been ratified, while six per cent are testing or deploying pre-standard devices. Combined, that suggests that two-thirds of organisations are actively looking to implement 802.11ac once available.
So, if two-thirds of organisations plan to introduce 5G Wi-Fi after its likely introduction next year, what should they be doing to prepare for it? There are already some pre-standard devices on the market equipped with the dual-radios required to provide the necessary backwards-compatibility. However, these are very much consumer-focused, while enterprise-grade routers, access points and adapters are unlikely to be available until late 2013.
While 802.11ac will bring benefits of faster, more reliable Wi-Fi connectivity to many businesses, there are obstacles that will need to be overcome. To properly benefit from 802.11ac, analyst Gartner estimates that up to 70 per cent of organisations will need to upgrade or replace their networking hardware in order to cope with the boosted capabilities.
That is something that could cause businesses to rethink their budgets, and while bigger firms should be able to cope with diverting funds into preparing for the new technology, it may be beyond some small businesses. It’s a decision smaller firms will need to carefully weigh up in 2013.
It’s not only Wi-Fi networks that’ll need to catch up with the capabilities of 802.11ac; many end-user devices will also need to be updated. A new generation of products capable of supporting 5GHz networking (current devices use the 2.4GHz band) will need to be developed to enable homes and businesses to take full advantage of the faster connection speeds on offer, making end-point up-grades a necessity in many cases.
Overall, then, 802.11ac will bring the benefits of faster, more reliable connections, at the costs of possibly requiring upgrades to the backhaul network, endpoint, routers and access points.