Wireless Standards Explained: How 802.11ac Breaks the Gigabit Barrier

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We have a tendency to take our technology for granted. The processing power of an average iPhone blows away the tech that brought humanity to the moon, but many of us are concerned with clearing lines in Candy Crush and experimenting with new emoji.

Even the Internet, one of mankind’s greatest achievements, has become mundane. In our homes, offices, and even on the streets, we go through life oblivious to the vast amounts of data literally flying through the air around us.

Wireless Internet—both Wi-Fi and cellular technology—revolutionized the way we interact with the world, but we only really notice it when we can’t get a signal.

Wi-Fi is an exciting and continuously evolving technology that’s come a long way since its inception. By learning the history behind it and what’s going on beneath the hood, you’ll gain a greater understanding of the tech that drives your business and how you can utilize it better.

Learning the ABC’s of Wireless Standards

Wireless standards, the specifications for over-the-air interface between wireless clients, have gone through several iterations since the first generations emerged in the late 90’s. Known as 802.11, the family of standards was first introduced by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 1999.

The oldest version still in use today, 802.11a, didn’t make much impact in the consumer market. It was better in many ways than some of the iterations that followed, but the technology was young and prohibitively expensive. Subsequent generations would see significant improvements to speed and operating range.

Wi-Fi didn’t really take off until the 802.11b wireless standard—though it was slower than its predecessor in terms of bandwidth, it offered much superior range, allowing networks to be setup using many fewer access points, which were still quite expensive at the time.

802.11b operates on the 2.4 GHz spectrum, a set of frequencies that had originally been set aside for non-telecommunications uses in the Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) fields.  In spite of that non-telecom ISM designation, the 2.4 GHz band was the go-to frequency for cordless phones, garage door openers, and other consumer devices that emit a communications radio signal long before Wi-Fi hit the consumer market. As Wi-Fi took off, the 2.4 GHz spectrum became increasingly crowded, resulting in frequent interference and reduced bandwidth.

5 GHz: Give Your Wi-Fi Room to Breathe and Speed

The 802.11g wireless standard, ratified in 2003, improved the standard and allowed speeds of up to 54 Mbps. Unfortunately, it still operated only on the same 2.4 GHz band. Though 802.11g devices were the most popular yet, their signal was subject to the same interference of the older models. Even microwave ovens, appliances not particularly known for online interaction, emit radiation that affects the Wi-Fi quality of 2.4 GHz devices.

Six years later, the 802.11n wireless standard finally gave mass market devices the capability to communicate on the 5 GHz band as well as the existing 2.4 GHz capability. 5 GHz is a more sparsely populated frequency that enables faster speeds and far less interference.

Bluetooth, baby monitors, and other wireless devices won’t bother a 5 GHz signal, so at long last you’ll be able to microwave a delicious Hot Pocket free from the fear of Netflix buffering.

Like all good things, of course, the 5 GHz band comes with some tradeoffs.  The big one is that due to the physical properties of higher-frequency radio waves like 5 GHz, they don’t penetrate through obstructions nearly as well as the lower-frequency 2.4 GHz signals.

Ironically, this ability for 2.4 GHz signals to reach through obstructions like your average home or office wall—while great for coverage—has actually made the crowding problem on the 2.4 GHz frequencies that much worse.  The signals frequently penetrate so well that your 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi network is a victim of interference from your neighbor’s similar network, a problem that can become almost intolerable in high-density apartments and office buildings.

802.11n was the first standard to allow operation in both the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz frequency ranges, which was really a game changer.  If you’re using a computer with a newer wireless chipset and one of the newer Wi-Fi standards, you get the best of both worlds—if you’re in a room with poor signal, your laptop will use 2.4 GHz automatically to take advantage of its superior range and obstruction-busting abilities.  If you’re in a space where the 2.4 GHz is congested but are close to an access point—a very common scenario in high-density locations like office or apartment complexes—you get to use the less crowded 5 GHz band.

802.11ac: This is the Wi-Fi You Want

802.11n was the first standard to use both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, but 802.11ac, approved in 2014, is a faster and more scalable version. In addition to some technical advances that improve the Wi-Fi experience in more general terms, 802.11ac is designed to provide much, much faster speeds than any previous Wi-Fi standard.

As the first “Gigabit Wi-Fi” standard, 802.11ac a big deal. To put it in perspective, as many Internet packages begin to exceed 100 Mbps of speed—let alone Google Fiber or other Gigabit-and-higher services—faster Wi-Fi is essentially required to take advantage of those higher speeds.  There’s not much point in have a 250 Mbps Internet connection if the Wi-Fi that you use most of the time can’t take advantage of it!  Optimized to support streaming HD video, gaming and other bulk data, 802.11ac is the perfect companion for today’s cutting edge Internet connections.

If you’ve got a laptop or ultrabook, 802.11ac is your new best friend. It’s what allows you to stream YouTube, Netflix, and other bandwidth hogs with nearly the same speed and stability of a wired Ethernet connection.

If blazing fast streaming isn’t enough, the 802.11ac wireless standard also comes with improved power-saving features. Thanks to the improved speeds your device transmits the same amount of data in just around a third of the time, which translates to less energy being used.  Given that the wireless radios on today’s mobile devices are some of the biggest battery drains, this improvement isn’t to be overlooked.

Not All Wi-Fi Routers Are Created Equal

Of the various 802.11ac routers available today, we’re big fans of Apple’s Airport Extreme and Airport Time Capsule models for home use because they offer simple setup and solid hardware for the price.  They also don’t compromise on performance because they have what is known as simultaneous dual-band support—in simpler terms, it means that they have two radios so that they can support the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands that we talked about above at the same time.

Lower-end routers only have one and you have to pick which band to use, even though the package still says “802.11ac”.  That can be a real bummer because only supporting one band or the other negates a lot of the cool things that we outlined above, so be wary and do your research before buying.  Cheap hardware is usually cheap for a reason.

For business applications, Aruba Networks has a wide range of high performance access points to deliver Wi-Fi in both indoor and outdoor environments.  IT Freedom is a certified Aruba Networks partner, and we use their hardware exclusively for our customer deployments.

802.11ac is here. It’s fast, efficient, and increasingly affordable. As we grow more and more untethered from our desktops and workstations, we need a wireless standard that can keep us connected wherever we go. 802.11ac is the answer.

Not sure what all of these means for your business? Good thing we are—and have plenty of years of experience deploying the best for our customers. Reach out to us with as many questions as you’ve got, or set up a free consultation and we’ll talk about it all.


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