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Technologies to watch 2013: Gigabit Wi-Fi

John Cox | Jan. 3, 2013
The next major advance in Wi-Fi, the still-in-draft IEEE 802.11ac standard, seems like a slam-dunk: It promises data rates ranging from 433Mbps to, in some configurations, 1.3Gbps, hence the label "Gigabit Wi-Fi." What's not to like?

Enterprise access points will begin appearing by midyear. One example is Cisco's previously announced 802.11ac plug-in module for its Aironet 3600 high-end access point. Cisco, and its rivals, have been upgrading their access points and controllers, adding memory, CPU power and other changes to handle the higher data rates as well as the anticipated higher demands that mobile Wi-Fi clients put on backend services such as encryption and authentication.

Vendors say they expect enterprises to phase in Gigabit Wi-Fi by adding 802.11ac radios first to high-density areas - with lots of clients or demanding applications or both. At some point, enterprises may have to upgrade WLAN controllers, wireline Ethernet backhaul, or switches (or some combination), and RADIUS and other backend network services.

For this infrastructure market, the radios will support two, three or four data streams. Chipmaker Marvell announced Dec. 3 the first 4x4 802.11ac system-on-chip, a companion to its client-focused 2x2 product. It's targeted at enterprise WLANs, carrier Wi-Fi networks, and video distribution applications.

One infrastructure segment to watch will be the carrier market. At least some mobile operators have been turning to and expanding use of Wi-Fi as a companion service for subscribers to use at least sometimes as an alternative to their cellular data plans. 802.11ac's faster data rates, capacity, improved signal quality and other features could trigger a rapid build-out of such services.

At about this same time, new models of mobile devices, as well as plug-in adapters, will start to appear, incorporating 802.11ac silicon. Redpine Signals, for example, announced a year ago the release of a 802.11ac chip for integration with smartphone-class processors. Smartphones and possibly tablets will almost certainly be limited to single-stream chips, with a maximum data rate (based on using 80-MHz-wide channels) of 433Mbps. Throughput will be much less, and will be reduced even more as more clients connect to the access point, and the distance grows between client and network.

PC World's Michael Brown evaluated the five available 802.11ac routers on the market in a September 2012 report. "We're talking real-world throughput of 400 to 500 megabits per second (mbps) at close range; that's twice the speed of the best 802.11n routers," he writes. "And at very long range, where most 5GHz 802.11n routers peter out, an 802.11ac router can deliver throughput of between 50 mbps and 100 mbps more than enough bandwidth to stream high-definition video."

Right now, without adapters, using these products is awkward: Brown had to use one 802.11ac router connecting wirelessly to a dedicated 802.11ac bridge or a second 802.11ac router configured as a bridge, with devices attached to the bridge by Ethernet cables.

But by mid-2013, you can wave goodbye to awkwardness and just revel in speed.


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