Gigabit Wi-Fi at last? 802.11ac "wave 2" arrives

A new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac wave 2, is here and maybe, just maybe, we'll get real-world Gigabit wireless networking with it.

My first "Wi-Fi" experience was in the 80s when I used a microwave dish to send a T1, 1.544 Mbps, connection from one building to another at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. We've come a long way since then. But, even with 802.11ac, we've yet to crack the 1 Gigabit per second wall. Now, with the just standardized 802.11ac wave 2, we may finally break the Gbps barrier.

802.11ac wave 2 Wi-Fi

802.11ac wave 2 can not only deliver great Wi-Fi speed, it can manage multiple full-speed data-streams at once.

Wi-Fi Alliance

Sure, in a lab you can't already get 1 Gbps speeds. But most of us don't work in labs. We work in the real world.

The best performance I've ever seen using my Linksys EA9200 tri-band router with a Broadcom 5G XStream Wi-Fi chip and the latest firmware is 700Mbps. Good, but not as good as the Gigabit throughput I get over the wire off my Netgear ProSAFE Gigabit switches.

802.11ac wave 2 looks like it might set a new speed record. Wave 2 brings to the table the following features, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance:

  • MU-MIMO: Networks with MU-MIMO are capable of multitasking by sending data to multiple devices at once rather than one-at-a-time, improving overall network efficiency and throughput
  • 160 MHz channels: 802.11ac wave 2 increases the maximum channel bandwidth from 80 MHz channels to 160 MHz channels, potentially doubling transmission speeds
  • Four spatial streams: Device speeds are proportional to the number of spatial streams. Wi-Fi CERTIFIED ac now includes support for four spatial streams, up from three spatial streams.
  • Extended 5 GHz channel support: 802.11ac wave 2 encourages device support for a greater number of available channels in 5 GHz. Support for additional channels makes more efficient use of available spectrum and reduces interference and congestion by minimizing the number of networks operating on overlapping channels.

For increasing speed to a single device the most important factor above is it doubles 802.11ac's channel size. The Wi-Fi Alliance claims "devices supporting the full set of new features are capable of achieving up to three times the speed of devices supporting only original Wi-Fi CERTIFIED ac features."

We'll see. But, we won't be finding out soon. Don't expect to go down to your local Best Buy and buy a wave 2 device tomorrow. For now, except for the newest generations of Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge smartphones, the only 802.11ac wave 2 hardware are chipsets. By this fall, you'll find them powering high-end Wi-Fi access points and routers.

Them, we'll start to see if 802.11ac can really deliver 1 Gbps speeds when they're not on a testbench.

Even if they don't, however, you may want to upgrade to 802.11ac wave 2 networks. That's because besides the raw throughput, this updated version of 801.11ac excels at delivering networking to multiple devices. Most of wave 2's features are designed to supply the maximum amount of bandwidth to four or more devices. We're going to need all the support we can get for multiple devices.

ABI Research has predicted that average US home will have 20 connected devices by 2020. I already have twice that many in my home office.

With MU-MIMO, four spatial streams, and extended 5GHz channel support, 802.11ac wave 2 devices are exactly what you're going to need in both your office and home in the years ahead.

As Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of Wi-Fi Alliance said in a statement: "In today's world, people have more Wi-Fi devices per person and per household, and those devices require significantly more bandwidth." 802.11ac wave 2 will meet those demands.

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