New 802.11 Standard Could Equalize Wired and Wireless Speeds

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

Five Reasons Wi-Fi Will Overtake Traditional Telecoms

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) certainly deserves credit: The outfit seems to introduce wireless standards at a rate appropriate for the pace at which innovative wireless products are being introduced. In other words, they are churning out standards at a fast rate.

The latest entry is 802.11ac-2013 which, a bit incongruously, was unveiled a week into 2014 at CES. According to the press release, the new standard will offer speeds as fast as 7 Gigabits per second (Gbps) in the 5GHz band. That, according to IEEE, is more than 10 times faster than the previous standard. The release describes the technical parameters of 802.11ac-2013:

The IEEE 802.11ac specification adds channel bandwidths of 80 MHz and 160 MHz with both contiguous and non-contiguous 160 MHz channels for flexible channel assignment. It adds higher order modulation in the form of 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), providing an additional 33-percent improvement in data rate. A further doubling of the data rate is achieved by increasing the maximum number of spatial streams to eight.

Multiple in, multiple out (MIMO) is a familiar technique that uses multiple antennas to buttress signals. 802.11ac-2013 introduces multiple user MIMO (MU-MIMO). Webopedia has a rundown and Radio-Electronics’ Ian Poole offers a tutorial. The bottom line is that MU-MIMO enables more than one device to access the same channel simultaneously by using smart antennas’ “spatial” abilities to discern between devices depending upon their location.

MU-MIMO and the new modulation technique are the interesting elements for the technology-minded, but the business folks will find interesting aspects as well. ZDNet’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols points out that while the promised speeds never equal those in the field, this iteration of 802.11 is pushing the industry toward an important crossover point:

I expect devices using the next generation 802.11ac to crack the 1Gbps in the real world and perhaps reach speeds as high as 2.5Gbps. At that speed, wired businesses, which typically use 1Gbps Ethernet, will face situations where Wi-Fi will be able to replace conventional desktop networks in some offices.

Vaughan-Nichols does a good job of isolating the salient question for planners: Once wireless speeds truly equal those of wired networks, a world of possibilities opens for organizations. It is likely that IT departments will take a serious look at the new version of 802.11 during the next few months.

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