October 03, 2012

When should you make the move to 802.11ac Wi-Fi?

The answer is when it makes sense for you. The longer you wait the greater the likelihood that “all” of the 802.11ac standards will be implemented, products will be more mature, you will be more prepared, and prices will more than likely come down.

The 802.11ac IEEE standard is the next generation of WiFi and the successor to 802.11n. As was the case with the initial introduction of 802.11n WiFi there is now a lot of buzz around the introduction of 802.11ac WiFi. Consumer products for 802.11ac access points are available now from manufacturers such as Netgear and D-Link.  Clients will be available by late 2012 to early 2013. Enterprise 802.11ac access points will be available by mid – late 2013. But when will it really be ready to deploy and when should you make your move? The following are a few points to keep in mind and will help guide you in your migration to 802.11ac.

Basic comparison between 802.11n and 802.11ac:

Key Features802.11n802.11acBenefits
MIMOIntroduced with 11nSupported with 11ac and will require additional antennas to achieve maximum throughputIncreased performance
Channel bandwidth20 and 40 MHz20, 40, and 80MHz and maybe 160MHzIncreased performance
Spatial Streams1 – 4 Spatial Streams1 – 8 Spatial StreamsIncreased performance
Multi-user MIMONot available in the first releaseOptional but will not be available in first generation productsSupport for simultaneous client sessions
Frequency2.4 and 5GHz band5GHz band only5Ghz has less noise, and a much greater number of non-overlapping channels
Bandwidth per spatial stream150Mbps433MbpsIncreased performance
ModulationBPSK, QPSK, 16QAM, 64QAMBPSK, QPSK, 16QAM, 64QAM and 256QAM modulationIncreased performance


By using 802.11ac clients on existing 802.11n WiFi networks users can experience increased performance and less interference immediately without upgrading the WiFi infrastructure to 802.11ac.

  • 802.11ac will be 5GHz only and it will be backwards compatible with 802.11n which protects your  existing 802.11n investment
  • When 802.11ac clients are available they will be able to enjoy increased performance with less interference over the 5GHz band using existing 802.11n access points
  • Running 802.11ac clients on 802.11n access points will also provide increases in battery life due to the higher bandwidths

Things to keep in mind as you consider your plans for 802.11ac:

  • Beware of products that claim they can offer upgrades to existing hardware. Although in theory this may be true, if the existing product did not take into consideration the increased CPU and memory requirements for 802.11ac you may gain nothing. Additionally 802.11ac will require new hardware for both the access points and client devices, there is no such thing as a software upgrade
  • WiFi controllers that require access point traffic to run back through the controller may not be able to handle the increased traffic of 802.11ac
  • Part of the increase performance gains are accomplished by increasing the channel bandwidth from 40MHz in 802.11n to at least 80MHz in 802.11ac.  So even though 802.11ac is backward compatible with 802.11n all client devices will need to be upgraded to 802.11ac in order to take advantage of the actual performance gains
  • Multi-user MIMO (MU- MIMO) is one of the big performance features for 802.11ac but it will not be available in first generation 802.11ac products and may not be available for a long time. MU-MIMO essentially allows for the AP run multiple spatial streams and transmit simultaneously to more than one client. Something not even possible with 802.11n
  • The 802.11ac technology will not be ratified by the WiFi alliance until mid – late 2013. This means that things could still change
  • As of this writing the FCC (US) is yet to rule on use of 80Mhz channels

Complete implementation for all of the 802.11ac standards are still probably 2 – 3 years out and although there may be incremental gains to be had by moving to 802.11ac now you may also be able to achieve substantial gains by using 802.11ac clients on your existing 802.11n network.

As with most RF implementation 802.11ac is complicated and will require that you do your homework prior to actual implementation. There is plenty of information on the topic on the internet. For questions or help in planning your migration to 802.11ac please contact Enterasys through our Web site and we will be happy to help.

About The Contributor:
Scott FergusonWireless Product Marketing Manager

Scott Ferguson is a Product Marketing Manager at Extreme Networks with 20+ years of domestic and international experience in the computer and data communications industry. He has held numerous senior level positions in engineering, product management, and product marketing for start-ups, fortune 500 companies, and business turnarounds in both carrier and enterprise focused businesses. Scott is an industry leader driving hardware and software products to financial success and market recognition, in: security, management systems, network infrastructure, and applications. Scott has held senior level positions at companies that include Apani Networks, Avaya, Colubris Networks, Nortel Networks, and Xyplex Networks. Scott has also been a consultant for companies helping them achieve their business goals through his strategic / business planning, new product introduction, implementation, and marketing skills.

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