October 22, 2012

802.11ac: The Fifth Generation of Wi-Fi


802.11ac, the emerging standard from the IEEE, is like the movie The Godfather Part II. It takes something great and makes it even better. 802.11ac is a faster and more scalable version of 802.11n. 802.11ac couples the freedom of wireless with the capabilities of Gigabit Ethernet.

Wireless LAN sites will see significant improvements in the number of clients supported by an access point (AP), a better experience for each client, and more available bandwidth for a higher number of parallel video streams. Even when the network is not fully loaded, users see a benefit: their file downloads and email sync happen at lowlag gigabit speeds. Also, device battery life is extended, since the device's Wi-Fi interface can wake up, exchange data with its AP, then revert to dozing that much more quickly.

802.11ac achieves its raw speed increase by pushing on three different dimensions:

  • More channel bonding, increased from the maximum of 40 MHz in 802.11n, and now up to 80 or even 160 MHz (for 117% or 333% speed-ups, respectively)
  • Denser modulation, now using 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), up from 802.11n's 64QAM (for a 33% speed burst at shorter, yet still usable, ranges)
  • More multiple input, multiple output (MIMO). Whereas 802.11n stopped at four spatial streams, 802.11ac goes all the way to eight (for another 100% speed-up).

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