802.11ac Wireless Upgrades: 7 Key Considerations

The new 802.11ac wireless standard offers compelling benefits, but make sure you cut through the hype and understand your requirements before upgrading your WLAN.

Lee Badman

July 21, 2015

8 Slides

Every new wireless technology rides a wave of hype into eventual wide-scale rollout. For 802.11ac, much of the buzz is certainly warranted as the latest WiFi standard promises huge performance gains.  The devil is always in the details, however, and fast radios aren’t the end of the 11ac story.

Regardless of the size of the network, the WLAN component doesn’t work in a vacuum. The importance of introspection before an 802.11ac upgrade only increases with the size of the enterprise. Much of the decision on whether you’re ready to (or should) move to 11ac is technical, but just as much is political and strategic. Even before you can get into your own technical specifics, it’s important to gain a realistic understanding of what 11ac can for you versus what’s being touted in a lot of inaccurate news articles.

If you’re contemplating an 802.11ac upgrade, you have probably heard about the promises of “gigabit WiFi” -- wireless that acts more like a switch because of MU-MIMO and reduced interference. It all sounds really great. But dig deeper, and you’ll find that 11ac’s top end of around 7 Gbps is a fairy tale at this point, MU-MIMO is available on limited hardware and requires a variety of situational factors to line up before it can be leveraged, and even the reduced interference notion to be heavily dependent on how you implement 11ac. In other words, wireless is just as complicated as it’s ever been, if not more.

Once you’ve cut your own path through 11ac’s fog, you’ll likely find that it’s still a profoundly compelling wireless option. The speeds are there, even if they're less than what the marketing claims. The radio technology is better, and 11ac moves the WLAN paradigm deeper into 5 GHz and away from the sagging, noise-filled 2.4 GHz spectrum.  Advanced features like beamforming were optional and proprietary in 11n, but standardized in 11ac. Best of all, many of us will get 11ac at the same price as 11n.

Before you actually make the jump to 11ac, there are a number of issues you should consider. The guidance provided here should help fend off potential buyer’s remorse and project gotchas, and help manage expectations for a new 802.11ac environment.

Image: teekid/iStockphoto

About the Author(s)

Lee Badman

Wireless Network Architect

Lee is a Certified Wireless Network Expert (CWNE #200) and Wireless Network Architect for a large private university. He has also taught classes on networking, wireless network administration, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronic Warfare systems journeyman technician and Master Technical Training Instructor, and a stint in telecommunications in the private sector. Lee is an active Extra Class amateur radio operator (KI2K), and has a wide range of technical hobbies. He has helped organize and has presented at several higher education and industry conferences, and has done extensive freelance writing work for a number of IT, low voltage, and communications periodicals. Follow him on Twitter at @wirednot, and read his personal blog at wirednot.wordpress.com.

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