Wi-Fi’s Next Wave

Latest wireless networking standard delivers speed necessary to support more devices and applications.

Since its introduction in 2013, the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard has had a dramatic impact on wireless networks, delivering marked improvements in speed, availability and reliability. It has rapidly become established in the enterprise, accounting for roughly 80 percent of access point shipments in 2016. Analysts with IDC expect 802.11ac to push the previous IEEE standard, 802.11n, into obsolescence by the end of 2018.

The best is yet to come, however.

Products based on Wave 2 of the 802.11ac standard are now available and promise to deliver even better data rates and throughput. Industry analysts say this will enable organizations to more easily support the growing number of devices connected to their wireless networks, as well as a new generation of high-performance, high-bandwidth applications.

Shipments of 802.11ac Wave 2 access points doubled in volume in the third quarter of 2016, according to statistics from IHS Markit. The new technology accounted for about 10 percent of all wireless access points shipped during the third quarter, up from 5 percent in the previous quarter.

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, recently upgraded its wireless network with Wave 2 gear. That is a significant development, considering CERN operates the world’s largest physics lab and is the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

CERN wanted a modern, mobile- first network to accommodate the nearly 20,000 different devices that need to connect to the network daily. The upgrade is designed to provide reliable coverage across campus, enabling visiting scientists and workers to use their own mobile devices. CERN also wanted the ability to properly sandbox visitor devices and detect rogue access points.

“With the mobility demands of our staff and scientists increasing, we knew that installing the right wireless infrastructure was critical to enabling a productive workplace,” said physicist Tony Cass, leader of the Communications Systems Group at CERN.

Relieving Bottlenecks

While Wave 1 access points deliver speeds of up to 1.3Gbps, Wave 2 products are capable of almost doubling those speeds to multiple devices at the same time. The ability to wirelessly connect multiple users at full speed is extremely important in high-density environments such as offices, universities, hotels and hospitals — especially during peak times when bandwidth demands are highest.

Wave 2 technology could also quadruple the number of supported users, according to many experts. This is accomplished by using even wider bandwidths, doubling the number of available spatial streams from four to eight, and introducing multi-user, multiple-input multi-output (MU-MIMO) technology. MU-MIMO creates greater separation between spatial streams and allows multiple data streams to be sent simultaneously on the same frequency channel. MU-MIMO relieves bottlenecks by allowing networks to transmit data to many users simultaneously instead of just one at a time.

While deploying Wave 1 products required minimal upgrades, making the jump to Wave 2 isn’t as simple. Although 802.11ac is a wireless standard, the wired network needs to be able to support it. Upgrades to cabling and the network backbone will be necessary to avoid bandwidth bottlenecks.

Upgrade Considerations

Organizations using Gigabit Ethernet technology will have to upgrade to higher capacity switches to support Wave 2 wireless speeds and traffic. New specifications are currently being defined for both 2.5Gbps and 5Gbps Ethernet standards, which would enable organizations to get more bandwidth from existing Cat5e and Cat6 cabling. However, new switches would be needed to deliver faster speeds.

The larger leap is to 10Gbps, which would take full advantage of 802.11ac Wave 2, although it would likely require new cabling. However, an update to the cabling plant may be in order given trends toward ever-greater network speeds. Some companies are already looking at 40Gbps and even 100Gbps to ensure adequate capacity and avoid another upgrade down the road.

Another area that many experts believe will need to be addressed is the edge of the network, where wireless traffic is entering the network through the WAN or the Internet. If these pipes aren’t wide enough to support increased wireless traffic, users won’t experience the kinds of connection speeds that 802.11ac Wave 2 technology is capable of delivering.

“With the second wave of 802.11ac emerging in the market, network managers have greater choice in how to approach future wireless network upgrades,” said Rohit Mehra, vice president, Network Infrastructure, IDC. “Wave 2 brings new capabilities for the WLAN to better serve as a tool for business innovation but may require deeper infrastructure upgrades. Network managers should engage in a thoughtful analysis on how to best deploy 802.11ac Wave 2 and extract maximum value.”