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802.11ac Migration: Picking Up Steam In 2014

Industry experts believe 2014 will start to see an increase in sales of Wi-Fi equipment based on the new 802.11ac standard as enterprises face pressure to support more wireless devices and bandwidth-hungry applications on the network.

A number of different market dynamics will determine how each enterprise pursues an 802.11ac project, primarily where they are in their regularly scheduled networking upgrade process and how much demand they see for 11ac from workers increasingly using wireless devices instead of wired laptops and desktops in the workplace.

If an enterprise is managing an 802.11n network, but product support from the vendor is winding down -- or worse, they’re still running an older 802.11 a, b or g network -- the decision to invest in 802.11ac is simple, said Bruce Miller, vice president of product marketing at Wi-Fi company Xirrus.

Furthermore, the price premium for 11ac over 11n is relatively modest, said Chris DePuy, vice president of wireless LAN research at Dell’Oro Group.

The price premium for 802.11n technology was as much as 100% higher than for older equipment, DePuy said, while the premium for 11ac over 11n is more in the 50% to 60% range. Some vendors tout price premiums of only 25% to 30%.

The 802.11ac standard is expected to roll out in two phases, dubbed Wave 1 and Wave 2. Key to Wave 2, expected to arrive in 2015, is the addition of a capability called multiple-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO). It enables more efficient spectrum use, higher system capacity and reduced latency by supporting up to four simultaneous user transmissions, the IEEE says. Some enterprises may choose to stay on the sidelines till Wave 2 comes along.

Nonetheless, 802.11ac is definitely top-of-mind in the enterprise. A user survey to be released sometime this quarter by the research firm Enterprise Strategies Group shows that 20% of 303 IT professionals surveyed said they were in the process of deploying 802.11ac, 27% were planning a deployment, another 27% were “actively investigating or researching” and another 18% are “interested” but have no plans to deploy yet. Only 6% expressed no interest in 802.11ac.

“You’ll probably see more pressure on organizations to move to a higher throughput Wi-Fi environment,” said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at ESG.

The pressure comes from the increased use of wireless devices on enterprise networks, often smartphones and tablets owned by employees themselves that they use on the network. Other drivers are the increased use of bandwidth-hungry applications on the network, such as video.

The 802.11ac standard, which was granted final approval by the IEEE Jan. 7 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, boasts significant improvements in capacity and performance over the prevailing 802.11n standard. The 802.11ac standard enables data rates up to 7 gigabits per second (Gbps) in the 5 gigahertz (GHz) band, more than 10 times the speed that was previously standardized, the IEEE says.

In addition, the specification adds channel bandwidths of 80 MHz and 160 MHz with both contiguous and non-contiguous 160 MHz channels for flexible channel assignment.

[Read why marketing hype about how 801.11ac will benefit users obscures the true gains we'll see with the new wireless standard in "802.11ac Benefits: The Myths And The Reality."]

At this early stage of the 802.11ac rollout, most Dell customers are deploying 11ac in new parts of their enterprise, such as a new warehouse or newly leased office space, said Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product management and marketing at Dell.. In some instances, the customer’s network may be a mix of 11n and 11ac.

Still, the tide is definitely turning toward the faster speed and capacity of 11ac, Joshipura said. Not only is more video content being delivered over wireless, more HD video is in demand. In addition, video surveillance cameras are on 24 hours a day, adding to network traffic.

While 802.11ac sales will certainly be stronger in 2014 than 2013, the real surge will happen in 2015 when Wave 2 and the multi-MIMO standard becomes available, said Jeff Schwartz, senior global product manager for mobility and wireless at HP Networking.

“I think the majority of products throughout 2014 will still be 11n,” Schwartz said. “Where I think the major uptake is going to be will be in 2015 when we get multi-MIMO. That’s the real game changer.”

But sticking with an 11n deployment may limit an enterprise’s ability to “future proof” its network, Dell’Oro Group’s DePuy said.

While the number of 802.11ac-enabled endpoint devices such as tablets and smartphones is relatively small now, when they catch on and employees start
bringing in those devices, the network won’t deliver the maximum performance.

“If you stick with n, your decision might be second-guessed a year from now,” DePuy said.