Reality Check on the 802.11ac Wireless Standard

Vendors are introducing 802.11ac products--are you ready for the wireless standard? Here's what you need to know.

July 9, 2012

4 Min Read
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The 802.11ac high-speed wireless standard has solidified enough that vendors are beginning to turn out pre-standard hardware. The next big thing in wireless probably isn't in your purchase plans this year, but many of us in the wireless game feel compelled to get wise early, lest we be ambushed by the technology onslaught next year. Here's a brief look at what's new with 11ac.

The blogosphere is heating up with various takes on how 11ac will affect clients and networks alike. Wireless manufacturers are posting more press releases, white papers and FAQs on 11ac, which is still very much a draft standard. Speculation on ratification seems to favor mid-to late 2013, but in the wireless world, pre-standard sales and tire-kicking are in full swing. Already, we see consumer-class 802.11ac routers on the market from major players in the space, including Buffalo Technology, Cisco (Linksys) and Netgear.

On the client side, Asus has introduced the first 11ac laptop to market, the G75VW, while Netgear brought out its first 11ac USB adapter, the A6200. On the enterprise side, Cisco Networks has announced a plug-in 11ac module that will allow for in-place upgrade of its top-tier Aironet 3600 access point, with expected availability in January. And the list goes on.

So, if you feel compelled to take a chance and spend some budget dollars, you can find early 11ac products to evaluate. For those opting to wait for their vendor of choice to release mature 11ac products, you can set a calendar reminder to check for orderable SKUs late next year. However you proceed, there's a lot to learn about 11ac well ahead of any attempt at implementing it as part of the business IT framework. Never has a client-facing wireless standard been so complex.

By now, anyone with even a casual interest has probably gotten accustomed to 11ac being described as Gigabit-capable wireless. Early product versions likely won't come close to providing gigabit capability, but the standard itself will allow some crazy-impressive radio circuitry that might eventually provide well above a Gig on a single access point. As with 11n, the lower data rates and simpler permutations of what the standard supports are pretty much a certainty, but how much of the upper performance limits will become reality remains to be seen. (802.11n allows for four streams and data rates to 600 Mbps, but most, if not all, manufacturers will never implement the yet-to-be-delivered fourth radio as the advent of 11ac will likely halt the evolution of 11n.)

Whatever data rates and throughputs we end up getting with 11ac will absolutely be impressive. Perhaps even more importantly, 11ac adoption will push more clients of all types into the generally healthier 5 GHz band and out of the 2.4 GHz band, which has become the East River of wireless spectrum in the last decade. The greatest benefits of 11ac will come from extremely wide channels that range between 80 and 160 MHz in width, and how the vendors choose to "assemble" these channels out of available frequencies will become the stuff of marketing campaigns and much confusion, particularly for those who don't really get the whole RF thing.

The 11ac wireless standard will challenge our installed Power over Ethernet bases, as more radios under each access point hood will require more power. To reap full 11ac benefit will likely require a move to PoE+, and it is not outrageous to expect some vendors to require two uplinks to a single access point during the life span of the 11ac standard: At first they'll need the second connection for additional power; eventually they may need it for bandwidth as some 11ac access points may deliver more than 1 Gbps.

At the client level, amazing things are coming with 11ac. But to implement and support them, wireless administrators will need to seriously update their knowledge of heady topics like modulation and coding schemes, beam forming and the finer points of MIMO (which, oh, by the way, gets an order of magnitude more complicated but powerful with 11ac). Like it or not, we'll either get a lot more comfortable with engineering-level minutia or we won't stand a chance against vendor sales jargon or meaningful client support when the 11ac train pulls into our stations for real.

The 11ac storm is coming, and the clouds are getting more obvious as they move in. It will start with a sprinkle and eventually turn into a transformative downpour that truly enables wireless networking to threaten wired connectivity even more than 11n does. It will be thrilling, pricey, confusing, empowering and here before we know it. If you haven't started self-educating on 802.11ac yet, the clock is ticking.

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