It took a while, but 802.11ac Wi-Fi, with its theoretical maximum of 1.3 Gigabit per second (Gbps) devices, finally started showing up in the summer of 2013. That's fast, but faster is on its way. 802.11ac-2013 will break existing Wi-Fi speed-records with a screaming 7 Gbps of data in the 5GHz range.
Of course, none of these standards actually deliver as fast in the field as they do on the testbench. For example, current shipping 802.11ac devices actually top out at 400 to 800 Megabits per second (Mbps).
I expect devices using the next generation 802.11ac to crack the 1Gbps in the real world and perhaps reach speeds as high as 2.5Gbps. At that speed, wired businesses, which typically use 1Gbps Ethernet, will face situations where Wi-Fi will be able to replace conventional desktop networks in some offices.
802.11ac can beat the pants off earlier technologies, such as 802.11n, by using larger channels for data throughput in the 5GHz spectrum These broader channels use 80 MHz-wide channels, instead of 802.11n's 40Mhz channels to deliver data faster.
According to the IEEE, 802.11ac 2013 "adds channel bandwidths of 80 MHz and 160 MHz with both contiguous and non-contiguous 160 MHz channels for flexible channel assignment." Channels that broad don't leave a lot of room in the available 5GHz bandwidth for multiple access points (AP) so setting up a business 802.11ac-2013 network is going to require a lot of work to avoid virtual wireless traffic jams.
The IEEE also claims that by adding higher order modulation in the form of 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), the data rate will increase by 33 percent. "A further doubling of the data rate is achieved by increasing the maximum number of spatial streams to eight.
Finally, and the most radical change, the new IEEE 802.11ac "introduces a revolutionary new technology to support multiple concurrent down-link transmissions, referred to as 'multi-user multiple-input, multiple-output' (MU MIMO). By using smart antenna technology, MU MIMO enables more efficient spectrum use, higher system capacity and reduced latency by supporting up to four simultaneous user transmissions. This is particularly useful for client devices with a limited number of antennas, such as smartphones and tablets."
"As wireless networks become more widely deployed, users are able to transition applications from fixed links to the convenience, freedom and versatility of wireless links," said Bruce Kraemer, chair of the IEEE 802.11 working group in a statement.
He continued, “These transitions create an evolutionary demand to enhance the capacity of wireless networks in order to support the increasing number of users, as well as new classes of applications with higher bandwidth requirements. Moreover, as WLAN usage of shared spectrum grows, the wireless access mechanisms need to be improved to achieve higher multi-user throughput. IEEE 802.11ac is intended to meet these evolving needs for higher data rates and to help enable new generations of data-intensive wireless applications."
That all sounds good, but the big question is: When will companies actually start shipping 802.11ac-2013 gear? No one is saying yet. I expect the usual suspects -- Cisco, Linksys, D-Link, and Juniper -- will start shipping early adopter gear by the 3rd quarter of 2014 and mass production runs will appear in time for the 2014 holiday season.