Full speed ahead for 802.11ac Gigabit Wi-Fi

802.11n takes a back seat as Wave 1 and 2 802.11ac wireless LAN products drive rollouts

Last December customers were peppering wireless LAN vendors with questions about whether to upgrade to the pre-standard-but-certified 802.11ac products flooding the market or hold off until 2015, when more powerful “Wave 2” Gigabit Wifi gear was expected to become prevalent.

A year later, even though Wave 2 products have begun trickling into the market, many IT shops seem less preoccupied with Wave 2 and more focused on installing the Wave 1 11ac routers, access points and other products at hand. After all, this first wave of 11ac is at least a couple times faster than last generation 11n, plus has more range, boasts better power efficiency and is more secure. And even Apple’s new support it.

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Surprisingly, 802.11ac products aren’t much more expensive than 11n ones, if at all. That might help explain why market watcher Infonetics reported in September that “802.11ac access point penetration has nearly doubled every quarter and is starting to cannibalize 802.11n.” And the company is optimistic that 11ac and Wave 2 products, plus carrier interest in the technology, will give the WLAN market a boost in 2015.

Ruckus Wireless, which sells WLAN gear to enterprises and carriers, sees customers taking a middle-of-the-road approach, buying some 11ac products now and figuring to buy more when Wave 2 products are plentiful. Ruckus is looking to let customers who do invest in 11ac now upgrade products to Wave 2 at little to no cost down the road.

Aruba Networks, which rolled out 802.11ac access points in May of 2013 to deliver more than 1Gbps throughput, is now shipping more 11ac than 11n gear.

“We’re definitely seeing customers making the shift -- almost all of them are either actively looking at ‘ac’ or are starting to think about it in the next year,” says Christian Gilby, director of enterprise product marketing and owner of the @get11ac Twitter handle. “What’s really driving it is the explosion of devices. From a standards point of view, there are [more than 870] devices WiFi Alliance-certified for ‘ac’.”

Many of those devices were certified before the standard was finalized and do not support the performance-enhancing options that so-called Wave 2 products will feature. This includes support for multi-user MIMO, which allows transmission of multiple spatial streams to multiple clients at the same time. It’s seen as being akin to the transition from shared to switched Ethernet.

Wave 2 chipsets and gear have begun trickling out, with Qualcomm being among the latest. But WiFi Alliance certification could still be quite a few months away – maybe even into 2016 --  and that could make buyers expecting interoperability hesitate.

The real holdup for Wave 2, though, says Gilby, is that it will require a chipset change

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