The Next Wi-Fi: Is Your 802.11n Installation Already Obsolete?

If you’re busy building out your 802.11n infrastructure, especially in these days of hard-fought and still-tight budgets, the last thing you want to hear is that there’s more technology on the horizon that will shortly force you to do it all again. OK, shortly isn’t tomorrow, but the contestants for that next upgrade are already massing today.

The recent announcement from the Wireless Gigabit (WiGig) Alliance that their 1.1 spec is done and that (by implication) production can't be far off came as little surprise to industry observers (well, OK, to me, anyway). WiGig is positioning 60 GHz. technology as the ultimate solution to all present and future traffic and capacity challenges, from enterprise (and residential) networking to HDTV-class wireless video links. And, as a fan of 60 GHz., I agree - WiGig-based products, which could appear as early as late this year, but certainly in the first half of next year, will offer exceptional throughput, and, I think, range that will surprise many.

But WiGig isn't the only game in town. Looking just at data (not dedicated video) links, 3x3:3 .11n is becoming available from more suppliers each week (and stay tuned for an upcoming real-world test of this technology), 4x4:4 is seeing more activity this year, with Quantenna announcing adoption of their third-generation chips, and 802.11ac already being touted by some as the logical upgrade path to 802.11n.

WiGig is pretty much in concert with the other IEEE gigabit WLAN effort, 802.11ad. I have high hopes for 60 GHz. given the large amount of spectrum available (7 GHz. in the US), advances in CMOS process technology that will lower costs, advances in antenna technology that will increase range, and its ability to address both data and video applications. 802.11ac intends to offer gigabit speeds in the 5 MHz. bands, but I see this as a more constrained approach due to the likelihood of congestion and consequential interference in these bands and the need for 80 MHz. channels to deliver full performance. The FCC is yet to rule on 80 MHz. channels, but, even if allowed, that interference problem and the lower transmit power levels that will undoubtedly be mandated will constrain the rate vs. range performance significantly - so fallback to .11n speeds will be common.

But there's an even bigger question afoot: when will that next big WLAN upgrade be required? I'm still going to argue that today's two-stream (300 Mbps) facilities will be more than sufficient for quite some ways into the future, with 3x3 and in some cases 4x4 being used to incrementally add capacity over time - no rip-and-replace required. 802.11ac-based products, which I expect in about a year, can also fill this role, with many, again, operating in fall-back 802.11n mode. .11ac clients will be rare, just as 3x3 and 4x4 .11n clients are today, again, for quite some time. .11ad will be a more than viable player, however, with some firms deploying 60-GHz. overlays for their power users and high-demand applications. Again, much here depends upon the availability of suitable client devices as well, but more spectrum, even at 60 GHz., is always a good thing.

This is all just analyst speculation, of course, and the marketing battle between these various alternatives (and a few more, like WirelessHD and Amimon's WHDI on the video side) is just getting started. Regardless, a .11g-to-.11n rip-and-replace approach won't be required, and anyone deploying any form of .11n today should feel confident that, properly scaled over time, such will serve the needs of most enterprises, users, and other organizations for quite some time into the future.

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