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How Apple’s 802.11ac Announcement Affects the WLAN Market

Although 802.11ac, a new gigabit-speed version of Wi-Fi, will not be fully ratified by the IEEE until the end of 2012 at the earliest, Apple has announced that they are working to support the standard across their entire product line this year. In addition, Broadcom introduced chips at CES that are also 802.11ac compatible. 802.11ac is a step up from the current standard protocol 802.11n, and operates exclusively on the 5GHz spectrum, using 80MHz or wider channels to achieve data throughput three times faster than that of its predecessor. Who doesn’t love faster and more powerful user devices and connectivity?

As Apple rolls out their new products with 802.11ac support, it is only a matter of time before Android companies follow suite. However, if 802.11n is any indication of what’s to come with 802.11ac, its full potential may take awhile to be fully realized, even though some capabilities might be available on consumer devices in the near future.

Despite being introduced in 2009, few understand how to fully utilize 802.11n’s capabilities, not to mention manufacturers lagging behind on support of 802.11n with devices that take full advantage of the spec (eg. 4-stream with its 600Mbps data rate). Why? Well, it’s because 802.11n is a very complex protocol and requires technological innovations, not just specifications, to fully function. And, the same can be said for 802.11ac.

WLAN equipment manufacturers learned a great deal from 802.11n, and some of these lessons have been folded into 802.11ac. In fact, when you take a close look at 11ac you can see what’s worked well and what hasn’t so far (from 11n) in the implementation of the new spec. However, challenges remain, both technological and logistical.

There are still significant geographic differences in the frequency allocations for the 5GHz band with entirely different sets of allocated frequencies for primary channels and channel bonding. This leads to differences in the availability and number of wide-band channels, significantly increasing the manufacturing and supply channel complexity of compatible devices. This could lead to equivalent hardware having different capabilities in different geographic regions, leading to marketing and sales, and even end user, confusion across product lines.

As with many technological advances, 11ac is very complex, which means manufacturers will need to work very hard to hide these complexities from end users, especially those in the general consumer market. Some recent new standards, like Wi-Fi Direct, will certainly help in this area, but given the confusion that still seems to exist among 11n users, even in the enterprise where there are networking experts, it’s clear this is not an easy obstacle to overcome.

On the bright side, 11ac will provide higher data rates while at the same time decreasing power consumption compared to 11n — one of the lessons learned. It’s the additional RF transmission chains that really eat up the power in mobile phones and other devices, and that’s why you still find very few smart phones and tablets that take advantage of the higher 11n data rates. How will 11ac achieve this? It has more efficient data encoding mechanisms that allow devices to use fewer multiple transmission paths while still achieving higher data rates. Also, it employs even wider data channels (80MHz and in some cases even 160MHz).

So, just because one vendor has announced support, it doesn’t mean the world is ready for 11ac. Unless your home electronics infrastructure is purely Apple, and that means everything – your computers, your handhelds, your APs, your TV, your DVR, your sound system – it will be difficult to immediately take advantage of the benefits. But other manufacturers will quickly follow suit, and with 11ac being perhaps a more efficient version of 11n, the overall advantages may be a bit easier to realize this time around.

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