802.11ac Adoption Fueling The Mobile Enterprise

With gigabit speeds and coverage efficiencies, wireless technology that rivals the performance of the traditional wired desktop will finally enable a fully mobile workforce.

Keely Spillane

August 14, 2015

4 Min Read
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The information world continues to shrink as both consumers and enterprises embrace mobility and wireless connectivity. Today’s ubiquitous smartphones, tablets and laptops will be complemented by the Internet of Things (IoT) and new service initiatives. A key factor in the success of both consumer and workforce migration to wireless gigabit bandwidth performance is the successful deployment of 802.11ac wireless technology.

Enterprises recognize the increased efficiencies and responsiveness afforded by a mobile and connected workforce. In fact, network and IT managers are now encouraging work beyond the office and embracing mobile applications  and cloud services to perform traditional tasks. For example, insurance claims adjusters can leverage mobile applications to help speed up damage claims, while healthcare workers can efficiently conduct more bedside care with WiFi enabled tablets.

In addition to improved performance for a mix of industries, 802.11ac also supports bandwidth-hungry applications such as video for telepresence and web-conferencing. On the device side, 11ac will ensure increased airtime for older legacy systems as newer client devices get on and off the network more quickly. A side benefit of more efficient airtime usage will be battery life preservation for the newer devices.

The need for mobility

The enterprise is particularly ripe for the deployment of 802.11ac. Market analysts at Infonetics Research (now IHS) has reported increased demand for new WLAN equipment, noting that government and enterprise customers are moving faster to adopt 802.11ac than previous WLAN versions.

Further, a study by the Yankee Group confirms that employees are shifting away from PCs to smartphones and tablets, driving a substantial rise in the usage of enterprise WLANs. Perhaps this is why 92% of Fortune 500 companies are testing or deploying iPad platforms, while 80% of the top US hospitals are following suit.

802.11ac benefits

One reason for the growing interest in 802.11ac technology is the need to support more users or devices. To satisfy this requirement, 11ac Wave 2 provides an option for multi-user Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) on the 5GHz band. Whereas 802.11n was limited to four spatial streams, 802.11ac goes all the way to eight, providing a 100% speed increase.

Another benefit for enterprise networks is beamforming. Multi-user MIMO works by taking advantage of beamforming to send signals to spatially diverse locations at the same time. With MIMO, information is sent and received over two or more antennas simultaneously on the same frequency band, thus providing greater range and increasing throughput. As enterprise access points (APs) typically have more memory, power and antennas, they can be optimized to reach the most clients in a specific location.

From the user standpoint, the best reason for adopting 11ac technology is one of speed. For the first time in history, 11ac gives wireless users the capability of matching the gigabit speed of existing wired networks.  As with its predecessors, the 11ac specification maintains backward compatibility with legacy IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n devices. Still, caution must be used when deploying 802.11ac APs as performance may be adversely affected by the slower transmission rates of 802.11a/n clients. A combination of previous and 11ac APs may be the best strategy for the enterprise.

Wireless matches wired

To ensure total system performance, the gigabit broadband speeds on the wireless end must be matched by the same speeds on the wired back end. Typically, this will mean that 802.11ac gigabit wireless upgrades, especially for second-tier Wave 2 access, will require additional upgrades in the existing Ethernet network. The challenge for the enterprise is to find ways to enable multi-gigabit bandwidth over existing network cabling, i.e., using existing 100BASE-T, 100 Mbps, twisted pair cable uplinks or install new, faster 1000BASE-T (1 Gbps)  switches. Most enterprises already have Cat 5e, which will support 1 Gbps.

Still, even when operating at less than optimal capacity, Wave 1 11ac networks may well exceed the performance of a 1 Gbps Ethernet uplink. In the near future, Wave 2 offerings will support the use of newer, 2.5 Gbps Ethernet (2.5GBASE-T) wired networks or even 5 Gbps uplinks.

The emerging mobile enterprise promises to significantly boost business profitability and workforce performance by expanding office functionality beyond the traditional workspace. Achieving these benefits will require the gigabit speed and technical improvements enabled by the rapid adoption of 802.11ac wireless networks.

About the Author(s)

Keely Spillane

Nicholas IlyadisVice President and Chief Technical Officer, Infrastructure & Networking Group, Broadcom Corporation

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