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Fretting Over 802.11ac

Call me a downer, call me a cynic. I'll counter with the stock answer I give my wife when she calls me out for being skeptical: I consider myself a realist. The not-yet-draft version of IEEE 802.11ac is building up steam just off the wireless stage, and I'm here to tell my fellow wireless network administrators that now is the time to start worrying.

If the 802.11ac twinkle has yet to land in your eye, let’s start with some simple familiarization. Take what you have learned about 802.11n, with its MIMO antennas and other tricks that let the standard promise data rates to 600 Mbps. Now paint it up bigger and sexier with even more technical sophistication and data rates to 1,000 Mbps under .11ac. The working group has yet to ratify a formal draft as I write this, but analysts are already easing into a full-court drama press about how wildly popular the new heir to the Wi-Fi throne will be even before the coronation is being planned.

Popular predictions regarding 802.11ac have millions of devices in users’ hands by 2012 and billions by 2015. Expectations are that as the IEEE does its thing in slowly working on draft versions on the way to ratification of the final standard, the Wi-Fi Alliance in parallel will be much quicker in certifying interoperability of .11ac draft products than it was for .11n when it was in draft. This is the key to the predicted device explosion. Couple that with .11ac likely being compatible with legacy .11n 5 GHz (and maybe 2.4 GHz) devices and promised data rates that boggle the mind, and it’s easy to see why we’re supposed to get excited.

But then there are those of us who live wireless networking every day who are slower to warm up to the hype. We design, install, and support wireless networks and have our own real-world perspective on the wireless networking industry and trends. Many of us have institutional knowledge that comes from having implemented every wireless and security standard since Wi-Fi become relevant, and know what it takes to get an organization and large numbers of clients onto a new generation of wireless network infrastructure. From that angle, allow me to share my worries about the .11ac storm clouds that are gathering on our collective horizon.

Many of us have had to grow our networks through the years to meet increased user demand and as society’s acceptance and expectations of wireless networking has matured. I currently upkeep 3,000 access points but can remember when the wireless side of my IT career started with a mere four APs. By the time .11ac becomes a consideration for me, my environment will probably be at around 3,500 access points. Let’s say each AP lists at a reasonable (for a new high-end access point) $1,500 and that I can get a steep discount to $750. I’m still looking at $2.5 million dollars in access point costs alone, not to mention labor and whatever is required in controller changes and the like.

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