802.11ac boosts wifi but devices become bottleneck

Handset and tablet vendors looking to the 802.11ac wifi standard to speed up wifi connectivity are rapidly approaching the point where their own devices become the bottleneck.

The latest generation wifi standard 802.11ac offers speeds of up to 450Mbps, which in practice equates to around 225Mbps of usable throughput on devices. Despite that, most tablet devices are not designed to support that kind of capability and the maximum speed they can support using 802.11n is around 65Mbps, and in reality, tablet users are currently getting about 30Mbps of usable throughput.

However, 802.11ac is not only designed to raise the high-end of throughput speeds, but to also raise the low end, according to Perry Correll, director of product marketing at wifi technology firm Xirrus.

“The most important thing people are missing is that the low end of 802.11ac is going to be around 250Mbps, so while I’m not worried about getting a full 450Mbps speed for my device, if I can get 150Mbps of usable throughput out of that, for a tablet – that’s the key point which most people are missing.”

The next generation of Apple devices are highly likely to support the protocol. “Apple is a big believer there, because they’re looking to use 802.11ac in the home. At the end of this year, you’re going to start seeing 802.11ac-capable consumer products,” said Correll.

He added that while previous wifi protocols that have been introduced were pushed and promoted by the infrastructure vendor community, for 802.11ac, it is the device manufacturers leading the call.

“It’s what Apple is really pushing and it’s what the phone manufacturers are really pushing .This is really different, because when 802.11n first came along, that was something that us as vendors pushed more, whereas 802.11ac is really coming from the consumer side in,” he said.

In fact, the protocol is already making its way into products. In May, Taiwanese PC maker Asus unveiled what it claims is the first laptop to support 802.11ac, and now networking giant Cisco has unveiled its Linksys EA6500 router, the company’s first 802.11ac router, which boasts wireless speeds of up to 1.3Gbps.

He added that 802.11ac is also going to improve battery life up to six-fold. This is because the weaker the signal the harder the battery has to work.

“If you’re in an environment where you’ve only got one or two bars of signal, your battery depletes much quicker. With 802.11ac, because of its design, we’re going to have much better signal strength because it has much better antennas.”

Tiago Rodrigues, program director of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), said that the organisation sees a lot advantages of 802.11ac, and said that the protocol been discussed at some length in the WBA forum.

“The way that I see it, 802.11ac can be a very interesting piece of technology that can be used in certain types of locations and the majority of the members were discussing that for areas, locations, and venues where there is a high volume of customers and it is quite busy – like New York City, for example,” he said.

“802.11ac coverage will prove to be very beneficial, not only because high bandwidth but the capacity for these low range high speed locations.”

However, Nicolas Ott, MD of government, mobile and enterprise at Arqiva, is unsure if the protocol will make the impact on the market that many are hoping for. He said that when consumers are using wifi, the two most important things they expect are security and seamlessness.

“Right now the wifi experience for a customer is not always satisfactory because it’s not always as seamless as it could be.”

“I think that any wifi protocol evolution that allows greater security and greater seamlessness is a good thing. However, it’s early days to say whether the 802.11ac protocol is going to be the right one or not. But I do think it’s a very important step forward.”

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