802.11ac – (Many) More Arguments for Sooner, Not Later

802.11ac was all over Interop New York, and every major vendor is now in the gigabit-wireless game. 2014 is consequently shaping up to be a blowout year for the industry, with what may very well be the last big Wi-Fi standard.

Interop New York was buzzing with news on 802.11ac last week. Just for starters:

  • Aerohive is now shipping their first 802.11ac APs, the AP370 and AP390 (the 390 has external antennas). These products feature an interesting angular industrial design that minimizes their visual footprint when installed. And, of course, Aerohive continues to promote their highly-distributed architecture - I should note once again that architecture and upper-level control- and management-plane features are just as important, if not even more important, than raw radio technology alone. All of the leading vendors have made investments in these these innovations, which, and not the IEEE standard or Wi-Fi specifications, essentially defining the competitive landscape today.
  • Cisco announced a bunch of new products, including the Aironet 3700 AP. The 3700 has a native .11ac radio and features the modularity of the 3600, the .11n AP with the ability to add a .11ac radio. The module in the case of the 3700 will often be used to add Wave 2 capabilities when these become available, future-proofing this particular product. Cisco emphasized the importance of .11ac at a live Webcast held at Interop, featuring both Cisco staff and customers discussing why .11ac is already burning up the track there.
  • And even Netgear is pushing the envelope with their residential-class R7000 Nighthawk AC1900 Smart WiFi [sic] Router that incorporates many enterprise-class features, like traffic prioritization, QoS, beamforming, bandsteering, airtime fairness, VPN-based remote access, and advanced yet easy-to-use management, plus the usual consumer-grade conveniences like a USB 3.0 port and media sharing. Open-source firmware is available (imagine the possibilities...). BTW, the 600 Mbps quoted at 2.4 GHz. uses a proprietary (to Broadcom, anyway) 256-QAM mode, not 4x4 MIMO. And all of this for 200 bucks - we'll have a review of the R7000 in the upcoming 2013 Network World Holiday Gift Guide.

I am, consequently, more convinced than ever that 802.11ac will become the WLAN technology of choice much more rapidly than was the case with .11g or even .11n. In fact, I believe the demand curves for .11ac and .11n cross by the end of 2015, or about two years from now. This is more aggressive than most analyst forecasts I've seen, but let me expand on my reasoning here. 802.11ac clearly contains a good number of valuable technological advances that are clearly already yielding returns in both throughput and especially in capacity. As demands on the wireless LAN (number of users, number of devices per user, and number of applications, especially those requiring time-bounded services) continue to grow, and very rapidly in many venues, more APs are required. Sure, the installed base of clients is most .11n today, but .11ac-based clients will come on line in significant numbers over the next year (perhaps even you, too, Apple). And, sure, those clients can operate in .11n mode, perhaps with even slightly better performance than current .11n clients, but with demands for throughput and capacity growing so rapidly, isn't .11ac already a better and even future-proof path, with improved price/performance? Of course it is!

The only other argument against .11ac at present is that Wave 2 isn't here yet. Wave 2 will likely include multi-user MIMO, higher raw throughput, and improvements in architecture, power consumption, and more. So, then, why not wait? Because the alternative is buying more .11n products, which, while certainly embodying a great proven technology, will quickly be obsoleted by .11ac. Wave 2, however, won't obsolete Wave 1 APs, which will continue to serve for many years. Given, as we alluded above, that the highly-competitive marketplace continues to drive both product availability and price/performance, I think it makes little sense to continue investments in .11n. Give .11ac a try - you will be impressed.

You can read much more about this subject in our latest White Paper on deploying 802.11ac, which covers both the technologies and strategies for rolling out what may be the last great advance in wireless LANs - remember, .11ad is already an approved standard, and we're unlikely to see new chunks of unlicensed spectrum large enough to justify additional investment in WLAN standards. My bottom line: the time for .11ac is now. Let's roll! And, yes, we just installed our first production .11ac AP here at Farpoint Group.

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