What Does 802.11ac Mean For Business?

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Today’s “unplugged” work environment has made the need for fast wireless networking critical. As a result, businesses are always on the lookout for technology that can free them from wired connections while enabling the rapid transfer of encrypted data. Now, a new standard that re-defines the fastest wireless transfer speeds available – 802.11ac – is poised to up the ante on just how fast data can be transmitted without the need for troublesome Ethernet connections.

How fast is 802.11ac? According to everything that’s been whispered in the wind so far, 802.11ac users can expect to achieve theoretical data transfer speeds in excess of a billion bits per second, aka 1 Gbps. This effectively blows doors on the speed of the current state of the art in wireless, 802.11n, which tops out at 450 million bits per second, or Mbps.

The way it works, 802.11n is capable of transmitting data at a maximum bandwidth of 150 Mbps, per spatial stream (in other words, per transmit device). 802.11ac, on the other hand, will be able to hit speeds of 433 Mbps per spatial stream, nearly tripling current speeds. Right now, 802.11n can only facilitate a maximum of three spatial streams. With 802.11ac, that number is expected to top out at eight. To get a handle on just how fast that is, multiply 433 times eight, add an Mpbs at the end of that number. For those without calculators, you’re talking 3,464 Mbps, or almost 3.5 Gbps when the new standard is at the top of its game.

802.11ac Wi-FiFor some perspective, many 4G LTE smartphone data plans offer users 5GB per month. The 802.11ac standard could theoretically transmit all of that in less than two seconds. Of course, it’s important to note that this is all still very much theoretical. Current first-gen 802.11ac devices with max speeds of 1.3 Gbps will top out around 800 Mbps, and you can always expect external factors like distance, interference, simultaneous connections, and the like to keep users from reaching those potentially dreamlike speeds. Nevertheless, this is still a vast improvement over what has come before.

Bear in mind, that early 802.11ac hardware devices will only be capable of facilitating three spatial streams as well, but as 2013 approaches and the standard becomes more ubiquitous, that will change.

The next obvious question is: does anyone really need all that speed? And what does the emergence of 802.11ac mean for businesses who are still getting used to 802.11n? Here are a handful of reasons why any business, small or gargantuan, would want to migrate to 802.11ac – even if they’re still trying to play catch-up.

Giving Corporate Employees More Choice

The proliferation of mobile devices capable of doing a lot more than simply dialing calls and firing off texts is putting a greater burden on the enterprise. With the ultimate goal of most companies being “Keep the worker working by keeping the worker happy,” businesses that only a few years ago might have rejected the notion of allowing employees mobile access through personally owned devices are now racing headlong toward it. Why? Because it makes sense.

Most executive decision makers are seeing it as a way of encouraging greater productivity: if Sally wants to access the database from her laptop over lunch, the more likely it is that she’ll get her work done faster. The “BYOD” craze – along with leaps and bounds made by IT departments at securing proprietary data – is also creating a strong demand for personally owned devices like iPhones, iPads, tablets and smartphones that can connect with the business through simple apps or secure mobile portals. 802.11ac provides the speeds necessary for this increase in traffic.

Keeping Up with Improvements in Technology

Netgear R6300Twenty years ago, the notion of holding video conference calls might have sounded a little sci-fi, if not impractical or incredibly expensive. Fast forward to just a dozen years ago, and even attempts at this stage might have met with frequent freeze-frame failures and premature deaths. Today, with applications like Skype, Apple’s FaceTime, and other high end, high-def web conferencing services, holding a telephone conference call is starting to feel arcane in comparison. The trouble with these kinds of high end conveniences is that they eat up bandwidth faster than a megashark gobbling unsuspecting swimmers. And when bandwidth gets eaten, things slow down greatly.

Making Room to Grow

Unless a company has plans to downsize, the only other alternative motion – outward expansion – means more people creating more bandwidth traffic. 802.11ac can handle, at a minimum, three times the amount of traffic through wireless channels than is currently possible. This makes upgrading to 802.11ac a necessity, not a convenience, for companies that are either experiencing or about to move into serious growth spurts. The cost of making the shift to 11ac will assuredly be pretty pricey, and there’ll always be the natural growing pains that come hand-in-hand with accepting a new standard, but businesses that are committed to improving their wireless capabilities would be wise to adopt.

Less Cluttered Bands for Wireless Data Transfer

The soon-to-be “old-school” tech of 802.11n operates on dual frequency bands, 2.4GHz or 5GHz. Its younger and much thriftier cousin 802.11ac works exclusively in the 5GHz range. This might sound like an impediment, but it’s actually a vast improvement, since the 2.4 GHz frequency band can also be occupied by other devices like Bluetooth devices, sometimes resulting in overlap. Although 2.4 GHz frequency bands still have slightly greater range than 5GHz frequency bands, the tradeoff of a far less cluttered wireless environment becomes easily apparent.

Despite the fact that specifics for what will officially qualify as 802.11ac are still being ironed out by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), there are already routers and other products on the market that tout the “fifth-generation Wi-Fi” claims. Companies considering an upgrade may want to consider waiting for the IEEE’s final verdict, said to be taking place sometime in 2013, before launching an expansion of their wireless connectivity hardware.

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