June 05, 2012, 1:51 PM — If you're in the market for a new router for your small business, you might be tempted by the flashy features, high speeds, and low cost of consumer-oriented routers. The latest models, based on the IEEE 802.11ac standard, look particularly attractive.
But can a consumer router deliver everything your business needs? Is it sufficiently secure? Is it scalable? Does it provide redundant connections to the Internet? If it's a wireless model, does it provide enough range to cover your entire office?
Should you instead invest in a router that's specifically designed for the needs of small- to medium-size businesses? What exactly distinguishes a consumer router from a business-class model, anyway? Glad you asked.
Consumer Router Priorities: Speed, Media Streaming, and Security
Walk into your local electronics retailer or shop online, and you'll find at least a dozen consumer wireless routers selling for $100 or less, from such well-known brands as Asus, Buffalo, Cisco (Linksys), D-Link, and Netgear.
The prices are certainly appealing. Even better, all the essential features seem to be in place, including compatibility with the IEEE 802.11n wireless networking standard, a four-port ethernet switch, wireless encryption, and a built-in firewall. Most routers in this class have 2x2 antenna arrays (two transmit and two receive antennas), which are capable of handling two 150-megabits-per-second spatial streams (one on each antenna) for a total theoretical throughput of 300 mbps. You'll never see real-world performance that fast, however; overhead, distance between the client and the router, and environmental factors can whack that number down. The industry refers to this class of router as "N300."
Many lower-end consumer routers are dual-band models, capable of operating wireless networks on both the 2.4GHz frequency band and the 5GHz band. The 2.4GHz band delivers better range--but since it provides only two nonoverlapping channels, and since so many routers have been deployed, the spectrum has become congested. The 5GHz band boasts 23 nonoverlapping channels, so it's significantly less crowded, but it provides much less range. Many people use the 2.4GHz band for data and Internet access, and reserve the 5GHz band for streaming audio and video over their network.