Ever-increasing numbers of mobile devices and bandwidth-hungry applications have made wireless connectivity critical. Many organizations are finding that their existing Wi-Fi networks are not capable of delivering the performance, capacity and coverage needed to meet these business requirements. Upgrades are needed.

That explains why enterprises and government agencies are moving quickly to adopt equipment based upon the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. Introduced a couple of years ago, 802.11ac delivers speeds that equal or exceed the wired network — many times faster than the previous 802.11n standard.

802.11ac products are being introduced in two waves. Wave 1 products, which have been available for a while now, deliver speeds of up to 1.3Gbps. Wave 2 products, which came on the market earlier this year, boost Wi-Fi performance even further, with a maximum speed of 6.93Gbps. Both Wave 1 and Wave 2 products are backward compatible with 802.11n.

A technology called multiuser multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) is the key to 802.11ac Wave 2 performance. 802.11n introduced MIMO, which uses the physics of radio waves to add more data streams and thus increase speed and range. However, MIMO can support only one user transmission per stream. MU-MIMO allows up to four simultaneous user transmissions per stream, and increases the number of streams from four to eight. Wave 2 products also support beamforming, which helps to increase range by transmitting energy in a specific direction, even around obstacles.

While Wave 1 products doubled the channel width of 802.11n from 40MHz to 80MHz, Wave 2 products double it again to 160MHz. This provides 802.11ac Wave 2 products with a major performance boost.

As exciting as these enhancements may be, there are challenges to implementing 802.11ac Wave 2. While Wave 1 typically doesn’t necessitate major technology investments, organizations may have to invest in new switches, cabling and other network infrastructure upgrades in order to take advantage of Wave 2 technology. Furthermore, you shouldn’t expect to achieve the maximum throughput on your wireless network just because the technology is capable of delivering it. 802.11ac depends upon techniques that are difficult to accomplish in the real world.

In addition, many mobile devices in use today don’t support 802.11ac, and even fewer support Wave 2. As a result, it may not make sense to deploy Wave 2 access points until more smartphones and tablets are capable of taking advantage of Wave 2 technology.

That said, you may want to make the leap to 802.11ac Wave 2 if you’re still using 802.11n technology, as that will likely be the better long-term investment. If you’ve already deployed Wave 1, your decision should be based upon business needs. For example, if Wave 1 doesn’t meet your application performance requirements or will not meet them in the near future, it’s a good idea to start exploring Wave 2 more closely. Just be sure to compare second-generation Wave 1 with first-generation Wave 2 to determine if Wave 2 warrants the investment at this stage.

IPC specializes in the design, implementation and support of Wi-Fi networks and infrastructure to support specific business requirements. Let us assess your existing Wi-Fi technology and organizational goals and help you determine the best path forward.