Wireless: The Next Generation


By Samuel Greengard

A decade ago, wireless networks were just beginning to appear on a widespread basis. Getting a connection anywhere, anytime was a far-fetched proposition.

Since then, cellular data networks have become ubiquitous, and we've blown through several iterations of wireless 802.11 technologies: namely a, b, g and n. In fact, WiFi is so popular that it's increasingly difficult to find plug-in ports at offices, hotels and elsewhere. And some computers, such as Apple's MacBook Air, no longer have an Ethernet port.

The downside is that WiFi has become a victim of its own success. Increasingly, access points are overtaxed, and provisioning and managing shared bandwidth create headaches for IT executives.

Some motels and restaurants that offer WiFi have so many users on the network at any given moment that it is almost impossible to load a Web page. Within the enterprise, where video and other high-bandwidth applications abound, bottlenecks and choke points are becoming more apparent … and frustrating for all involved.

IT executives take note. Although final ratification of the 802.11ac standard isn't due for a number of months, the technology offers enough advantages that many analysts recommend upgrading to it as soon as possible. A basic firmware update can address any minor changes that take place in the future. 802.11ac is particularly a boon for organizations involved in data-intensive fields, such as financial trading, hospitals using medical imagery and customer support centers.

The selling points? At 1.3 Gigabits-per-second throughput, 802.11ac offers the equivalent of Gigabit Ethernet speed. It supports a greater number of clients and provides markedly better performance for video and other bandwidth-intensive applications.

Meanwhile, the 5 gigahertz channel it operates on provides more available spectrum and greater flexibility in provisioning resources. Finally, it delivers expanded range. For some organizations, 802.11ac may signal the death knell for Ethernet.

For now, the major hang-up is finding mobile devices—particularly smartphones and tablets—that are equipped for 802.11ac. Several manufacturers have announced products that support the technology (mostly routers and access points). Samsung is now including an 802.11ac chip in its new Galaxy Mega phone, and Apple offers ac support for its most recent MacBook Air.

However, expect the floodgates to open later this year and into 2014. At that point, the wireless experience will take a giant leap forward.