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How close is the new 802.11ac standard to a cellular wireless experience?

The new Wi-Fi standard (802.11ac) has been approved. What should I know about this new form of Wi-Fi and how will it affect my business?

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When it comes to 802.11ac, there is definitely good news and bad news for the enterprise IT organization. Let's start with the good news: The 802.11ac standard delivers a Wi-Fi experience that is much closer to conventional cellular wireless. The standard not only improves throughput, but it also manages contention much better than previous Wi-Fi versions. Armed with better discrimination, encoding algorithms and denser antenna configurations, it not only demands less power from remote devices but also improves the reach of Wi-Fi access points (APs). Combine these features, and 802.11ac will support up to four times as many users per AP than cellular wireless, making the Wi-Fi fabric more cost effective. And because any AP or wireless router is going to be backwards compatible with 802.11n, upgrading the APs will be relatively simple.

Now the bad news: 802.11ac only delivers improved performance if the network that it rides can support that performance. While it is theoretically possible for 802.11ac to support higher transmission rates (up to a 1 Gbps), there has to be something to ride the transmissions. This means that if the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure is being fed with 10baseT Ethernet, there will be very little perceptible improvement simply by switching out APs. Think 1GbE in order to achieve the best connection experience.

Additionally, because 802.11ac is a strictly 5 GHz standard, expect some contention with 802.11n if complex overlay networks have been defined using 802.11n equipment. Ultimately, as more 802.11ac APs enter the network, a comprehensive survey and re-plan will be called for.

802.11ac is a very nice upgrade from cellular wireless to a very durable standard. Ultimately, it will define enterprise Wi-Fi. In the transition period, exercising some care and paying attention to coverage and contention will ensure a user-transparent upgrade experience.

This was first published in February 2014

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