The “Second Wave” of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association’s (IEEE-SA’s) 802.11ac standard is nothing like your grandfather’s WiFi. Representing the fifth-generation of wireless networking, this solid wireless LAN (WLAN) workhouse caters for increasingly denser networks that must meet the demands placed on them from a tsunami of devices all clamouring for bandwidth, with video leading the way clambering to the top of the bandwidth-intensive pile. Axel Bührmann untangles the cables and examines the new standard.
In an age where WiFi is increasingly being regarded as the de facto connection to the Internet, wireless networks based on 802.11 a/c/g and n are being pushed to the breaking point. As Tobie van Schalkwyk, channel manager for Linksys in South Africa, explains: we’re seeing a veritable deluge of WiFi-driven devices across a wide array of industries – from consumer to manufacture to agriculture.
“Fortunately,” he argues, “the Second Wave of 802.11ac represents a significant jump in technology and data carrying capabilities. The major selling point of these next-generation networking products is that their wireless throughput can exceed 1Gbps. Most new tables, phones, laptops, and game consoles are using wireless-AC and if they aren’t supporting it natively, wireless-AC routers have been shown to enhance non-AC devices as well.”
As its “Gigabit WiFi” nomenclature indicates, 802.11ac now equals or surpasses traditional Ethernet in speed, and could create a sound argument against installing wired networks.
Van Schalkwyk also points out that as the Internet of Things (IOT) becomes more popular, we’ll see the number of connected devices flourish – but only when they get the bandwidth they require for their data-hungry applications.
Plus, despite being relatively new, routers and other networking equipment based on the new standard come in at only some 10% more expensive than those based on previous standards – including “First Wave” products.
This view is bolstered by IDC, which states that with the advances that 802.11ac provides, the WLAN market became more nuanced, complex and competitive.
“The decision of when and how to implement a wireless network with 802.11ac is a top priority for today’s enterprise network managers,” explains Rohit Mehra, vice-president: Network Infrastructure at IDC.
“Network managers do need to take great care in comparing the wide range of viable solutions and deployment scenarios.”
“From education to healthcare to large enterprise, the increasing preference for wireless network access will continue to be seen, especially as emerging Wave 2 802.11ac will enable more applications to move to wireless,” says Nolan Greene, research analyst: Network Infrastructure at IDC. “We expect 802.11ac’s momentum to once again boost the market in subsequent quarters.”
Meanwhile, it’s not as if WiFi is resting on its laurels with the new standard. Waiting in the shadows is WiGig or 802.11ac, which van Schalwyk says will support multiple gigabit data rates and should emerge next year.
“And beyond that there’s are also 802.11ah and 802.11af, which will have few coverage limitations because of the low spectrum they plan to use – 900MHz,” he says.
“These will offer faster speeds, but with reduced coverage. It is yet to be seen if people will use these technologies with limited coverage.”
Speeding over the edge
As mentioned previously, WiFi and Internet have come to mean the same thing to most consumers.
John Kendall, senior analyst at IHS Technology, says the traditional bandwidth bottleneck has occurred in the last mile, but more recently, the increase in bandwidth throughput in more mature markets represents a fundamental shift of the bandwidth bottleneck from the last mile into the household and, more specifically, into the customer premises equipment (CPE) serving that household.
With so many connectable devices dependent on wireless Internet access and causing significant bandwidth congestion and quality-of-service issues with streaming video, WiFi is now the choke point for connectivity.
As Kendall explains, many of today’s more connected households have multiple smartphones, TVs, tablets, streaming OTT boxes, and even pay-TV set-top boxes all relying on the home Wi-Fi network to access media content, which places a serious burden on the broadband gateway.
Wi-Fi must also compete on the wireless spectrum with other home wireless devices, including cordless phones and microwave ovens, which have caused signal degradation.
“The sheer number of devices using WiFi is forcing ISPs to take ownership of the home network,” Kendall says. “It does a service provider little good to provide gigabit or even a 100 Megabit-per-second service tier, if the home WiFi network cannot accommodate that higher level of service. Since most devices in the home are connected wirelessly, consumers increasingly judge their ISP’s performance, and the value of their subscription, according to the quality of WiFi throughput.”
Enter, stage left and right, the next wave generation of WiFI: as Kendall explains, operators see 802.11ac as the killer app to resolves these challenges.
Dual band 802.11ac allows for WiFi operation on the 5 Gigahertz (GHz) band, which does not face interference from other household appliances. The incorporation of multi-user, multi-input and multi-output technology allows for concurrent WiFi streams to multiple devices, which again doubles the theoretical WiFi throughput.
“The 802.11ac specification, along with ISP requirements to embrace advanced WiFi solutions, presents a very strong industry opportunity – from chipset vendors to suppliers of broadband customer premises equipment (CPE),” Kendall says.
“We expect 802.11ac’s momentum to once again boost the market in subsequent quarters.”