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7 Reasons You Need 802.11ac

  • Do we really need 802.11ac? That's a question that my clients frequently ask me as they look into WLAN upgrades or plan new deployments. There are several benefits of the 802.11ac WiFi specification when compared to previous 802.11 protocols. But really what my clients want to know is whether they'll see a noticeable difference in 802.11ac WLAN compared to what they're using today.

    In this slideshow, I'll cover seven reasons why the answer to that question can be a resounding "yes." I'll explain ways 802.11ac improved on previous specifications, but also point out specific use case situations where 802.11ac WiFi is far more likely to surpass 802.11n/g/a and b. The goal is for you to understand how 802.11ac can show meaningful WiFi improvements that could potentially improve the speed of business. As we all know, time is money. So whenever we can shave a few seconds off a process using new technology, we should do it as long as it's cost effective.

    There are two types of 802.11ac technology:  Wave 1 was released in 2013 while enterprise-class products using the improved Wave 2 specification started showing up in early 2015. The primary differences between Wave 1 and Wave 2 have to do with the inclusion of multi-user MIMO, increased channel bonding choices, and the ability to use an additional spatial stream. All of features equate to increased speed or improved connectivity, as long as you have compatible hardware on both sides of the wireless connection. Given the choice today, there is very little reason to choose a Wave 1 product over a Wave 2 product unless the price difference between the two is significant.

    As you evaluate the usefulness of 11ac in your environment, you also need to consider  environmental situations such as device types, physical locations, and types of obstructions that a wireless signal might incur. In some situations, you'll immediately see the benefits of the new specification. In other cases, you may not see a difference until later down the road. Because of this, you need to determine whether now is the right time to adopt 11ac -- or wait until the next the  generation of  WiFi technology comes out and leapfrogs what's available today.

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  • Pure speed

    The most obvious benefit of 802.11ac is in the speed bump gained when compared to 802.11n. When talking about Wave 1 802.11ac, you see a theoretical speed increase of 3x. Wave 2 is even more impressive, giving a theoretical speed boost of 4-5x. While many deployment scenarios don't call for this kind of performance today, areas where device density is very high will certainly show overall speed improvements compared to older WiFi technologies. Keep in mind, however, your end devices must also contain 802.11ac Wave 1 or 2 radios to take advantage of the speed boost. So if you’re supporting older, legacy WiFi end devices, than you’re probably wasting your money.

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  • More reliable long-range transmissions

    The beamforming technologies found in 802.11ac allow end devices to connect more reliably at longer ranges. If you require that devices be placed fairly far away from the nearest wireless access point, then connecting at 11ac should be able to transmit and receive data with fewer dropped frames. This may be useful on external borders of buildings where outdoor wireless is required yet deploying an outdoor access point is not feasible. 11ac can extend the range of nearby APS, possibly covering the outdoor area where other 802.11 technologies can't.

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  • Working in areas with multiple obstructions

    The beamforming advancements within 802.11ac also help in areas with higher than normal physical obstructions. This is because the 11ac-capable WiFi radios have the ability to detect the approximate direction the wireless signal can be sent. The transmitting device then directs more of the wireless signal in that direction. By doing so, you greatly improve connection strength. In most office environments with few obstructions other than drywall, plywood and cubicles, this may not be all that noticeable. But in manufacturing plants, warehouses, and other areas where obstructions are far less forgiving, 11ac can make a real difference.

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  • Backward compatibility

    If you are upgrading or implementing a new wireless LAN, it stands to reason that you would go with 802.11ac technologies. WiFi vendors are selling 802.11ac-capable access points at the same price -- or cheaper -- than 802.11n hardware. It's also important to note that 802.11ac is fully backwards compatible and can work right alongside older APs without fear of interfering with older technologies. So if you want to perform a rolling upgrade, mixing 802.11ac APs with previous-generation APs all the way back to 802.11b, go right ahead. Just keep in mind that the newer APs may end up being the more attractive APs that end devices will want to connect to. But as long as you plan accordingly, rolling upgrades should be fairly seamless to end users.

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  • Improved multi-user performance

    The 802.11ac wave 2 protocol takes advantage of what's known as multi-user, multiple input/multiple output (multi-user MIMO). What this essentially means is the wireless access point can send multiple frames to multiple clients using the same frequencies. It does this by utilizing multiple antenna arrays built-in to an 802.11ac. Again, this will prove to be beneficial in densely populated WiFi areas.

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  • More channel bonding choices

    Channel bonding is the process of combining multiple channels together to create a longer-width channel that can transmit higher bandwidths. There are several use cases for this, including wireless backhaul and for the purpose of creating smaller cells in areas where device connectivity is dense. While 802.11n offers 40 MHz channel bonding, 802.11ac allows for 80 MHz and Wave 2 enables  160 MHz channel bonding.

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  • 256 QAM modulation

    The method used to transport data over radio waves is known as quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM). In 802.11n, the modulation used is 64-QAM. 802.11ac packs in more information by using 256-QAM. By providing more data in each wave, you can theoretically achieve a 33% throughput advantage. Keep in mind, however, that to achieve a full 33% speed advantage through 256-QAM, your wireless device must be in an optimal position, close to the AP, with little interference.

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