802.11ac Gains Ground

Products incorporating the new wireless standard are already on the street. Here’s what makes them special. By James E. Gaskin

Faster speeds, longer reach, same price: That's the pitch for the 802.11ac wireless standard. The successor to 802.11n, 802.11ac products are already on the street, and the standard should be official in the first half of 2013.

“We call this 'gigabit wireless' because it's gigabit capable, and wireless is finally getting into the speed range of wired Ethernet,” says Ed Doe, director of product management for Broadcom Corp., a maker of networking and communications integrated circuits headquartered in Irvine, Calif., and one of the first manufacturers to release 802.11ac silicon.

There are three ways 802.11ac beats 802.11n. First, it builds on the multiple-antenna features of 802.11n. This enables it to combine channels for faster speeds. Second, those combined channels are 40MHz and 80MHz wide, not 20MHz and 40MHz like earlier standards. Finally, using multiple antennas allows 802.11ac to “beam-form” the signal to focus in particular directions. Since the 5GHz frequency range for 802.11ac doesn't have to compete with cordless phones, microwaves, and garage door openers for bandwidth, less interference means better speeds and longer distances.

Netgear Inc. announced its first 802.11ac router back in April, and now has three routers and a USB client dongle available for the consumer market. “It's more of a consumer play right now,” says Sandeep Harpalani, senior product line manager, wireless networking, at Irvine, Calif.-based Netgear Inc. “We're seeing interest in the commercial side, but they typically lag behind adopting new technology.” Harpalani says that 802.11ac products are already about 8 percent of the router market in terms of revenue.

“The number of home wireless devices has increased to about six per household,” continues Harpalani. While the actual range of 802.11ac and 802.11n products are about the same, throughput for 802.11ac has increased three to six times over the earlier standard, giving real-world throughput in the 600Mbps to 650Mpbs area. “At the farthest points, where 802.11n was about 10Mbps, 802.11ac will be maybe 70Mbps,” notes Harpalani. 802.11ac routers do a better job covering a wider area.

Dual-band routers, running at 2.4MHz and 5MHz, are backward compatible with 802.11a, b, g, and n, and make up about 70 percent of the router market. “The first new 802.11ac products are routers, because you don't want to replace those more often than every two to four years,” says Doe, explaining why routers integrate new protocols first - to upgrade the old and prepare for the new. “ASUS [ASUSTeK Computer Inc.] has already integrated 802.11ac into a desktop and a laptop PC,” indicating that the new standard now has market penetration and would be a smart choice for resellers going forward.

“We're seeing strong interest in small and medium enterprises,” says Doe. “SMEs are gravitating toward wireless options like tablets and smartphones. BYOD highlights the importance of a reliable wireless infrastructure. And the iPhone 5 is dual band, as are the new iPad and Kindle Fire models.” 802.11ac should help all of these wireless devices.

When they were introduced, prices for 802.11n routers were around $179, and have dropped to about $159. The new 802.11ac routers cost roughly $199.