Guest Column | July 3, 2013

The Appetite For 802.11ac Standards

By Chris Hinsz, Product Manager, Enterprise Networks and Communications, Motorola Solutions

The appetite for wireless bandwidth is seemingly insatiable. Today employees typically tote a combination of smartphones, tablet computers and laptops – all which allow them to stay connected to the people and information they need to get their jobs done quickly and efficiently. As a result, there are more devices and more traffic pressuring the performance on wireless networks, and many enterprises are looking toward the capabilities that 802.11ac standards will bring. For enterprises, 802.11ac offers a substantial step up from the previous version. The benefits include carrier off-loading, reduced choke points and the ability to better serve employees and customers. However, there may still be questions for VARs – should they wait until the second generation is available? Is there a need today and what type of management may be required with this greater bandwidth? This bylined article will discuss the next evolution in the wireless technology and the issues facing VARs as they consider these solutions.

WLAN technology has seen an explosive rise in the past five years, with an increasing number of devices becoming wirelessly enabled. As part of this growth, the uses of wireless technology and the expectations of its availability have also grown. The number of connected devices a single person might carry has expanded to include numerous phones and tablets. With this increase, growing pains are evident on the infrastructure side as it strives to provide the demanding level of capacity for today’s connected employee or customer.

The new 802.11ac standard from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) alleviates this pain by offering increased data capacity. It is the fifth generation of WLAN technology. However, the new standard also comes with a lot of questions and uncertainty for VARs, including the potential of a “Generation 2” of 802.11ac in the near future, or that there are more deployment challenges to manage with 802.11ac. To best understand these issues, it’s helpful to go through a quick review of what 802.11ac offers over current-generation 802.11n equipment.

802.11ac Benefits

Simply put, 802.11ac means more bandwidth and fewer chokepoints. This translates to the ability of a network to better serve employees and customers. It utilizes Multiple-In Multiple-Out (MIMO) technology to improve throughput by increasing the amount of active antennas on access points (APs). It greatly increases the performance of the equipment, which increases reliability and performance. The 802.11ac standard builds upon these changes by allowing up to eight active antennas and allowing channel sizes up to 80MHz, a great increase from the traditional 20MHz, meaning more bandwidth is available for users. These additions bring wireless performance and reliability on par with wired connections, improving the user experience.

802.11ac Management

An 802.11ac wireless solution will need to be carefully planned and managed to ensure the planned application is delivered successfully. VARs should look for solutions that have strong, built-in spectrum management characteristics and ensure they understand the use cases intended by the user. For example, are they expecting multiple users at any given time that need guest access? Will users need applications that are data-intensive such as video? Bandwidth intensive applications that may have been avoided historically can be considered with 802.11ac equipment, as it can enable these applications.

An increase in the wireless network capacity also stands a chance of exposing other network bottlenecks that, historically, would go unnoticed. VARs should take care to ensure the overall network is up to par when performing a deployment of 802.11ac-enabled technology. Slow, wired networks and undersized management platforms can cause the user experience to plummet – completely negating the benefits of 802.11ac. When deploying an 802.11ac network, ensure that the overall solution either upgrades all components, such as APs, network management centers and wall plates, or includes features that will minimize the impact of these limitations.

Worth the Wait?

With these challenges, is there really a need for 802.11ac? Does it make sense to deploy it at all? Is the first generation still worthwhile? In reality, the differences between Generation 1 and Generation 2 products are minor and of debatable impact for VARs.  Generation 2 adds a highly hyped feature with Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO). With MU-MIMO, the various antennas can be used to send traffic to multiple clients at the same time, thereby making more efficient use of airtime and bandwidth. The majority of traditional deployments would see negligible benefit from MU-MIMO – users probably won’t see an increase in download times or clearer streaming. Customers planning on delaying deployments solely based on this feature should be encouraged to re-evaluate their decision.

The best way to look at 802.11ac is logical evolution of the 802.11n product trajectory. 802.11ac devices are already appearing on the market from mobile phones to laptops. If these devices are already going to be in your environment, why not deploy 802.11ac? Certainly paying a fortune just for the ‘ac’ label doesn’t make sense, but if the choice is between two products at equal price points, the choice is clear.