Why 2x2 Wave 2 access points make no sense

A 2x2 Wave 2 AP will cost about twice the price of a 2x2 Wave 1 AP—and it has limited benefits. So, companies should pass on this Wi-Fi technology.

Why 2x2 Wave 2 access points make no sense
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Everyone loves the latest and greatest technology. A new iPhone comes out, and people camp out at the stores to buy one. Microsoft releases a new version of Xbox, and they’re sold out for months.

Sometimes, though, the newest thing doesn’t make sense because the incremental value of the innovation is limited. In technology, this doesn’t happen very often, but I believe there’s a current “latest and greatest” that provides limited value—and that’s the 2x2 Wave 2 access points (AP) that are now available from many of the mainstream Wi-Fi providers.

Before I explain my opinion on this, it’s worth doing a quick refresh of Wave 1 versus Wave 2 because it’s important to understand the principals of Wave 2. Below are the benefits of 802.11ac Wave 2 versus Wave 1: 

  • Additional spatial streams. Wave 2 APs have a maximum of four streams compared to three with Wave 1. The additional stream enables more data to be transmitted/received to and from a single client.
  • Support for 160 MHz channels. Wave 2 enables channels to be bonded together to widen the communications path to a single client, which increases the theoretical bandwidth.
  • Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO). This enables an AP to connect to multiple client devices simultaneously. For example, a 4x4 Wave 2 AP could connect to four 1x1 or 2 2x2 clients at the same time. However, a 3x3 Wave 1 AP could talk to only a single 1x1 client. The other devices would need to wait until the connected endpoint finishes transmitting data before it connects because Wave 1 supports only single-user MIMO.

Based on the above, it is logical to assume that anything Wave 2 must be better than anything Wave 1, correct? In the words of Donald J Trump – “Wrong.” Here are the facts (actual, not alternative) that support my argument.

2x2 Wave 2 APs aren't necessarily better

There is no extra capacity between Wave 1 and Wave 2 2x2 APs. Look at the bandwidth specs from any of the W-iFi vendors. The maximum bandwidth is 867 Mbps, which is exactly the same throughput as the Wave 1 APs. But wait. Wasn’t Wave 2 supposed to be faster? It can be given the following:

  • Extra streams. Recall that one of the big benefits of Wave 2 versus Wave 1 is having four spatial streams instead of three. But that’s meaningless on a 2x2 AP because it supports only two streams. A 4x4 or even 3x3 AP will increase throughput, but a 2x2 will not.
  • 160 MHz channels. None of the vendors supports 160MHz channels right now and for good reason. APs have limited channels, and the wider ones are created by bonding multiple channels together. This is analogous to taking two highway lanes and making it one. At high volumes, it’s not going to push cars through any faster because the actual width of the lane is the same. It can make a difference at home where there are only a handful of devices, and that’s the sweet spot for 80 and 160 MHz. It’s not likely we will see these in business class APs any time soon.
  • MU-MIMO. This is another advantage of Wave 2 that I listed above. It’s worth noting that MU-MIMO is bandwidth management versus an increase in bandwidth. A 2x2 Wave 2 AP could communicate with two 1x1 clients at the same time, but Wave 2 clients are still limited. Also, most of the Wave 2 clients operate at 2x2, so a matching radio could process only one client at a time anyway, effectively making it a single-user MIMO AP. IHS recently published numbers that showed that in 2016 only 1 percent of the mobile PCs, 7 percent of smart phones and 0.6 percent of tablets had Wave 2 radios in it.  Many of the high-volume manufacturers, such as Apple and Samsung, are skipping Wave 2 and plan to support 802.11ax in the future.

So, what’s the key takeaway here for readers?

A 2x2 Wave 2 AP will cost about twice the price of a 2x2 Wave 1 AP. Given the limited benefits, it makes no sense to invest in them. If the business really does need the latest and greatest Wi-Fi technology, then it should buy a 3x3 or 4x4 Wave 2 AP. Otherwise, stick to a Wave 1 AP, and get exactly the same performance as its higher-priced counterpart.

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