A recent flurry of announcements from networking equipment vendors — including Belkin, Buffalo and Netgear — heralds the imminent arrival of the next generation of Wi-Fi products to the UK market. Incorporating many of the design features of 802.11n, the new 802.11ac standard, which is still not formally ratified, uses wider frequency bands and other tricks to deliver speeds (or more accurately, physical layer link rates) up to a theoretical maximum of 3.5Gbps. All the products mentioned here are based on chipmaker Broadcom's range of 802.11ac silicon.
The base specification of 802.11ac, which is a 5GHz-only technology, mandates support for 20MHz, 40MHz and the 802.11ac-specific 80MHz channels, 64 QAM modulation plus a single spatial stream to provide speeds up to 293Mbps. Optionally, there can also be a 160MHz channel (80+80MHz non-contiguous or a single contiguous 160MHz), up to 256 QAM and 8 spatial streams to give the full 3.5Gbps potential. The optional short guard interval of 400ns (the standard is 800ns) gives further room for tweaking product capabilities, so we can expect to see plenty of confusion in the marketplace as consumers try to get their heads around the options.
Assuming 80MHz channels, 256 QAM and short guard intervals, a single-stream device can operate at 433Mbps. Dual streams increase this to 867Mbps and triple streams enable 1.3Gbps. With 160MHz channels, these rates are, unsurprisingly, doubled.
The question of what happens to performance when both your neighbour and yourself try to occupy the full 160MHz available on the European 5GHz band remains to be seen. However, 802.11ac does allow the use of multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) and beamforming to direct data streams more precisely at multiple clients. All 802.11ac devices are fully backwards-compatible with the 802.11n and 802.11a standards. For the foreseeable future, routers are likely to be dual-band, containing a legacy 802.11n 2.4GHz radio.
Buffalo Technology was one of the first to announce an 802.11ac router, showcasing a prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2012. Its AirStation WZR-D1800H is on sale in the US, costing around $180, but the company has yet to announce its UK products or launch schedule.
Netgear's flagship R6300 802.11ac router handles up to 1.3Gbps on the 5GHz frequency band
Netgear has announced two routers, the R6300 and the R6200, plus a USB client adapter, the A6200. The R6300 was actually announced back in April, and again is already on sale in the US for about $200. Expected to arrive in the UK in autumn 2012, the R6300 features a 3-stream 802.11ac implementation, with speeds of up to 1.3Gbps on the 5GHz band. It also has a 3-stream 802.11n radio on the 2.4GHz band to give up to 450Mbps speeds. The R6200 is a lower-cost dual-stream device that provides 802.11ac speeds up to 867Mbps and dual-stream (300Mbps) 802.11n speeds on the 2.4GHz band. The A6200 adapter has the same performance capabilities as the R6200. The R6200 and A6200 will launch in the US in the third quarter of 2012, but Netgear could not confirm any UK launch dates.
The Netgear R6200 and A6200 USB client adapter
Belkin has also announced that it will be launching consumer 802.11ac products. However, it has yet to reveal details of the new range beyond a reference to 1.3Gbps speed, so presumably a triple-stream device will form part of the lineup. The company says that the new products will be available in Europe during August 2012.