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Meet 802.11ac: The Next Wi-Fi Standard


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The upcoming 802.11ac standard increases data rate and Wi-Fi range performance and overall signal reliability for better video distribution within the home.

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A question we're hearing with increasing frequency concerns the upcoming 802.11ac standard, which promises to do to 802.11n what .11n did to .11g. While the IEEE 802.11ac standard likely won't be completely finished before the end of 2013, and, while the Wi-Fi Alliance similarly has issued no interoperability criteria for 802.11ac, consumer-grade products claiming compliance with the aforementioned 802.11ac standard could be on store shelves as soon as the middle of 2012.

We should be used to this reversed-from-the-expected order of developments that define progress in the world of wireless LANs (products, then specs from the Wi-Fi Alliance, and finally the standard itself), but the .11ac announcements we're seeing now bring new relevance to the debate.

Even though we're still quite early in the development of the .11ac standard (Draft 2.0 is currently under development), a good number of products - from chips to residential/SMB-class products - were on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

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I suspect that most of these early residential/SMB products will spend most if not all of their useful lives operating backwards-compatible to 802.11n. And there's some question as to whether residential users will get very much at all out of .11ac, as home Internet connections (to say nothing of residential-class Ethernet switches and router ports) top out well below the 1.3Gbps that a three-stream, 40-MHz. .11ac product can nominally reach.

But just as was the case with .11n, the improvements in both rate-vs.-range performance and overall link reliability even in backwards-compatible .11n mode will provide some market momentum. Video distribution within the home may also provide some incentive to go with early .11ac implementations, although I continue to favor WHDI-based products as a more effective solution to provisioning a dedicated video link.

Enterprise use of 802.11ac is another matter entirely, however. I do not expect that we'll see many enterprise-class access points using 802.11ac until around the middle of 2013, and significant upgrades to controllers, switches, and even Ethernet cabling in some cases may be required to justify such an upgrade.

As the cost of WLAN equipment continues to decline, it may make sense (and maximize ROI) to simply beef up one's 802.11n deployment with increased access point density and/or three-stream products rather than waiting for 802.11ac. We suspect that enterprise-class WLAN vendors will offer additional capabilities beyond improvements in throughput and capacity alone as a justification to upgrade to .11ac, but we also suspect that, with a few relatively low-cost upgrades - like the inclusion of three-stream access points - many .11n installations will continue to hum along just fine for many years to come.

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