Gigabit Wi-Fi gear to arrive in 2014 but data rates will vary

Companies will be able to buy plenty of Gigabit Wi-Fi gear in 2014, but they may not get Gigabit Wi-Fi data rates.

Gigabit Wi-Fi, which refers to the IEEE 802.11ac almost-standard, can vary widely in data rates depending not only on its implementation in a radio, but also on how far a client is from an access point or hotspot. It runs only in the 5-GHz band, which in theory propagates less well compared to the crowded, channel-challenged 2.4-GHz band.

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Eric Geier reviewed a selection of 11ac USB adapters and a PCI Express card for Network World, and his tests vividly show the range issues. "In terms of performance, when tested at a distance of 25 feet from our access point, with one wall in between, our top performer was the ASUS [PCIE] card, with a maximum throughput of 280Mbps and an average of 169Mbps," he writes. "That's pretty fast, but not close to the Gigabit speeds promised by the 802.11ac standard. However, when we moved the laptop to within a foot of the access point, performance skyrocketed to 800Mbps."

(Related: Geier also reviewed a group of consumer-grade 11ac access points

Enterprise WLAN vendors are introducing aggressively priced 802.11ac access points, and more and more dongles and mobile devices have this newest version of Wi-Fi. Market researchers are forecasting rapid growth in 2014.

IDC says about 249,000 11ac enterprise-class access points shipped in 2013, with revenues of about $130 million. "That's barely a dent in the market," says Nolan Greene, IDC research analyst. The dent will be much bigger in 2014: IDC forecasts 1.6 million units, and about $700 million in revenues.

Enterprise 11ac access points will constitute about 10% of the market in 2014, compared to below 5% in 2013, says Chris DePuy, vice president of wireless LAN research for Dell'Oro Group. Third quarter 2013 sales jumped 10% with new entrants, such as Ubiquiti Networks.

Full list of stories looking ahead to 2014 in the tech industry.

The bulk of the buying will be what's called "Wave 1" 11ac, with a maximum data rate of 1.3Gbps if the radios support three spatial streams, use 80-MHz channels, and are pretty close together. However, most of the early client-side implementations in laptops (and potentially tablets) support two or, in the case of smartphones, one spatial stream. As a result, performance is well under 1.3Gbps but still up to roughly double what's possible today with 802.11n connections in optimal conditions.

Wave 2 products, due out late in 2014, will include a number of tweaks and additions, including multi-user MIMO, that will double the maximum possible data rate to 6.9Gbps.

Enterprises may lead the drive to 11ac, motivated by attractive pricing. DePuy points out that "it appears that vendors are pricing 11ac relatively closer to 11n than the [price] differential between 11n and 11a/g several years ago."

In other words, companies can double their network capacity for, in many cases, only slightly more than what they're paying today for 11n access points. That makes 11ac attractive in "green field" projects, such as new college campus buildings or, in the case of Royal Caribbean, new cruise ships. It also makes 11ac attractive for selective deployment in high-density areas locations with lots of clients, or high traffic volumes, or both.

The cruise line plans to deploy Meru Networks' 11ac access points as the standard in all new ships, starting in 2014, and phase in 11ac as network upgrades come due on existing ships, says Greg Martin, IT director for Royal Caribbean Cruises, located in Miami. (Related story: Cruise line plans 11ac network upgrades for stem-to-stern Wi-Fi

University of Houston, Texas, has piloted Meru 11ac gear in a very dense common area for students, with about 540 wireless connections at the peak period. They needed more than just coverage: they needed to assure adequate throughput, in this case 5Mbps per student minimum, says David Johnson, UH's executive director of technology services and support. That's easier to achieve with the larger "data pipe" that 11ac offers compared to 11n, he says.

Another reason for aggressive 11ac rollouts is that even 11n clients see substantial boosts in performance. UH's tests in the common area found that 11n radios were gaining about 30% in performance when running on the 11ac infrastructure.

Enterprises may have to upgrade to Gigabit Ethernet switches in the nearby wiring closets, but not many are facing, yet, backend network upgrades. And at some point in 2014, some enterprise IT groups will face cabling choices as they look at new construction, or renovations, in the face of Wave 2 11ac products.

So in 2014, end users who want the fastest speeds, and who buy an adapter or a mobile device such as Apple MacBook Air or Samsung Galaxy S 4 with 11ac built-in, may find a growing number of 11ac hotspots and networks. And 11n users who haven't made the switch will end up benefiting, too, as 11ac increasingly becomes the infrastructure of choice.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.com

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