The importance of wireless networks grows every day. It is no longer enough to have a wireless network designed based on coverage, where each employee has one or two network devices connected wirelessly. Modern wireless networks have to take into account the fact that each user will connect to Wi-Fi not only their corporate laptop and mobile but also a tablet or personal mobile phone as well. There is now an expectation that users can get the same speed and reliability as on wired connection. This plus the fact that Wi-Fi networks are one of the fastest growing technologies has led to the introduction of the 802.11ac standard.
So, what are wireless standards? Thanks to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standards we can be sure that whether it`s our smartphone, laptop or tablet, it will work fine regardless of if it`s connecting to a Wi-Fi access point made by Cisco, just as well as it does with a router made by Ruckus, Aruba or any other vendor. It defines what functions and capabilities a device must have to be certified to be compatible with particular standard, 802.11ac for example.
802.11ac categorised as Wave 1 was finalised back in 2013 and it succeeded 802.11n (on 5 GHz frequency). Wave 1 supports data rates up to 1.3 Gbps, with 3 spatial streams (which means that wireless signals are being transmitted simultaneously from different antennas, each signal is transmitted using different spaces within the same spectral channel to avoid collisions). A limitation with this technology means that only single end device can send and receive data at one time.
802.11ac is a faster and more scalable version of 802.11n. It finally introduced the capabilities of Gigabit Ethernet to wireless networks. There are three main factors by which .11ac achieves its speed:
• More channel bonding (neighbouring channels are bonded together to form a larger channel), increased from a maximum of 40 MHz with 802.11n up to 80 MHz;
• Denser modulation of electro-magnetic wave, and;
• More Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO). Whereas 802.11n stopped at four spatial streams, 802.11ac goes all the way to eight (giving a 100 percent speed increase).
During first two years following the standard ratification we did not see a huge rise in the deployments of .11ac networks. This was partially caused by the fact that there were still works ongoing on the second generation of 802.11ac – Wave 2, which may have caused some reluctance to adopt this standard, coupled with the fact that also there were not too many end user devices which supported the .11ac standard.
This however, changed very quickly. Nine of out ten best selling smartphones in 2015 supported 802.11ac, and this is without laptops or tablets. 802.11ac Wave 2 was finalised in 2016, this second-generation .11ac reaches the full potential of the standard.
Second-wave products offer even more channel bonding and spatial streams, with theoretical wireless speed up to 3.47 Gbps.
Even if the real-life speed will be much slower in practise, this is not just about the speed. The main advantage and improvement of Wave 2 is MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple Input / Multiple Output). This means that Access Point is able to transmit to multiple clients at the same time. This feature combined with increased speed can greatly improve the performance of a wireless network, especially in very dense areas, when multiple users are running high bandwidth consuming applications, like HD video or games.
Let`s not forget that some of those figures described are theoretical. It is not enough to buy an Access Point supporting 802.11ac Wave 2 standard to enjoy Gigabit wireless throughput. Also, a proper wireless network design that is based on a detailed on-site wireless survey has never been so important, especially for high-density deployments.
Every few years IEEE announces a new wireless standard. Can we be sure 802.11ac Wave 2 will stay with us for longer than few years? This is doubtful. In fact there is already new child in the 802.11 standards family: 802.11ax. Work on this standard is still in progress and we cannot be sure when exactly the final version will be released, it`s likely we may wait a couple of years at least. It will however, introduce some really cool features, like MIMO-OFDM (Multiple Input, Multiple Output, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing). Not to dive too deep into technical terminology, it will allow the ability to sub-divide channels even further, providing throughput that may be even few times higher than 1 Gbps. Apart from higher speed the connections will be more stable and less prone to interference, which is so important, especially for high-density deployments.
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