Why SMBs May Want to Wait Before Deploying 802.11ac

Paul Mah

Deploying a new Wi-Fi network for your small and mid-sized business, and thinking of utilizing the cutting-edge 802.11ac standard?

While 802.11ac does offer a substantial improvement in wireless data transfers, below are several reasons why you may want to settle with the current-generation 802.11n Wi-Fi standard, or hold off the new deployment for another four to six months.

802.11ac Not Yet Ratified

Despite the appearance of 802.11ac wireless access points (APs) and devices, such as the new MacBook Air laptops with 802.11ac, businesses should understand that the standard itself is still under “draft” mode and is yet to be ratified.

In fairness, the Wi-Fi Alliance did recently announce a certification scheme to ensure interoperability between current 802.11ac devices and those based on the final standard. For now, though, 802.11ac remains a “soon to be approved” wireless standard that costs more, while 802.11n is a mature standard that is widely supported.

Being an Early Adopter Means Risk

An extensive review by AnandTech revealed what appears to be a network protocol bug within the new 802.11ac-equipped MacBook Air that places severe limits on its maximum possible throughput. Though a software update will probably fix this, the incident highlights how early adopters are far more likely to face issues that may inevitably prevent businesses from achieving the maximum possible performance.

Subsequent Upgrades Will Be Faster

In a vendor-contributed piece published on Network World, David Callisch of Ruckus Wireless explained that devices featuring 802.11ac would arrive in two “waves.” The first includes those that are currently shipping, with the second-generation devices expected to arrive toward the end of 2014.

“As always, don't actually believe that you'll get any of the gigabit speeds that vendors are promising anytime soon… The vast majority of enterprise APs today still use basic omni-directional antenna designs that have no control over RF signals,” he wrote, alluding to how 802.11ac APs released this year may be surpassed by those released in 2014.

Few Client Devices Are 802.11ac Ready

Finally, the truth of the matter is that there are very few 802.11ac client devices available yet. While this is expected to change toward the holiday season and in 2014, existing laptops or even new ones that you purchase in the few months ahead are unlikely to sport the necessary support for 802.11ac. This is not to say that SMBs cannot make use of 802.11ac USB dongles; however, this detracts from the portability and convenience of PC laptops with built-in 802.11ac wireless.

Ultimately, it becomes quickly evident that even with a short two-year hardware refresh cycle, it may be another at least a year before the bulk of a company’s laptops are 802.11ac compliant, greatly reducing the benefit of investing in 802.11ac today.

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