802.11AC: Will wireless finally deliver?
I last wrote about the next generation of wireless more than a year ago (The next generation of WiFi is nearly here), when the very first, not-quite-on-specification 802.11ac routers were being shown off at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Since that time, you’d think that a new wireless standard might have finally been ratified, right?
Wrong. Wireless standards are notorious for the sluggish pace at which they get adopted. The current “standard” state of the art remains 802.11n. That took years to ratify, but in the meantime networking companies rushed “pre” 802.11n networking gear to market, based on chips that were as close to the standard being argued as possible. Some of them ended up identical, others could be firmware upgraded, and some ended up in little technology niches where they were off-spec for 802.11n, but perfectly serviceable if you had 802.11b/g/a equipment.
802.11ac is in exactly that kind of ghetto right now; there’s a number of routers, a smaller subset of adaptors and just a few devices that come with 802.11ac already baked in, albeit in a pre-ratification sense. The ratification issue may or may not matter; while it takes an age for the final sign-off to happen, changes aren’t usually all that radical over time. But what can 802.11ac offer you right now that your existing wireless gear can’t?
As with all things wireless, the key metric is speed of network transmission, which is something that’s become even more important in recent years. Back when 802.11n was cutting edge, most homes may have had only a single computer or laptop to serve a wireless signal. Now it’s quite feasible to have multiple computers, tablets, smartphones, smart games consoles and media streaming devices that can connect up to the Internet wirelessly. All that usage creates a significant throughput issue even for 802.11n. That’s where 802.11ac and its theoretical 867/1300Mbps speed ranges should satisfy more than the 450Mbps top theoretical limit of 802.11n. The existing products — from brands such as Linksys (now part of Belkin (Belkin buys Linksys) D-Link and Netgear — all tend to provide a dual band approach, because 802.11ac offers only 5GHz networking connectivity, and that tends to limit the backwards compatibility that most users would desire. You can’t connect up an 802.11n (or b/g/a, for that matter) device to an 802.11ac network and expect 802.11ac speeds, but if your existing device is 2.4Ghz only (and many are), you wouldn’t be able to connect at all.
802.11ac performs very well in real world tests, and the odds of major change are relatively low. If you’re currently struggling with a wireless network that won’t seem to deliver what you need, and can afford the gear (and a few adaptors for PCs and laptops; sadly those with tablets and smartphones without inbuilt AC can’t upgrade), then 802.11ac may be worth your while.