Wi-Fi's fast 802.11ac standard may pay off big in mobile

The new technology could cause phone makers and carriers to jump into a rich set of new channels

The emerging IEEE 802.11ac wireless LAN standard will be able to deliver faster connections wherever it's used, but the biggest benefit may come at public hotspots -- eventually.

On Wednesday, the Wi-Fi Alliance started certifying pre-standard 802.11ac products for interoperability with other Wi-Fi gear. Assuming nothing unexpected happens in the standards process, that means all products the Alliance approves as 11ac gear will work with each other and with older versions of Wi-Fi.

The Wi-Fi Alliance claims 802.11ac can offer two or three times the speed users get on most of today's networks, though real-world results can vary because of a wide range of factors. A second wave of 802.11ac, which the group isn't certifying yet, is expected to offer even higher speeds.

The new standard boosts performance through several improvements, including wider channels and better modulation techniques. But one reason 802.11ac can go faster is that it operates only in the 5GHz spectrum band, which has more channels and less competition for airspace than the 2.4GHz band most frequently used in Wi-Fi.

The 5GHz band is nothing new in Wi-Fi, and manufacturers can implement it with the current 802.11n standard. But in handsets, they usually don't. The iPhone 5, with dual-band 802.11n, and Samsung's Galaxy S4, which already has prestandard 11ac built in, are exceptions. Even many laptops aren't equipped to use the higher band, analysts say. Adding frequencies costs money, and device margins are slim.

Just as most mobile devices haven't tapped into the 5GHz band, Wi-Fi hotspots that serve those devices often don't either. But the performance boost promised by 11ac, combined with growing demands on Wi-Fi hotspots, may prove too enticing to pass up.

"It's running on a completely different set of channels than most hotspots are currently ... so the capacity is more than doubled for the user devices there," said Greg Ennis, technical director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Capacity is key for mobile operators, especially in crowded locations with many heavy users of mobile data. Carriers are picking up some additional frequencies through expensive auctions of private spectrum, but Wi-Fi networks running on free, unlicensed spectrum are a key element of their strategies. In busy places with heavy mobile users, such as airport lounges, the 2.4GHz band is starting to fall short, according to Yankee Group analyst Ken Rehbehn.

"The older Wi-Fi bands are just hideously overcrowded right now," Rehbehn said.

The 5GHz band, by contrast, has 25 distinct channels totalling about 500MHz of spectrum. It hasn't been used as heavily for Wi-Fi and isn't as crowded with other technologies, such as Bluetooth.

It takes both network operators and device makers to embrace a new technology. The carriers, primarily, will drive adoption of 11ac in mobile, Rehbehn said. "That's where the bets are being made," he said. Most manufacturers will follow cautiously, when it's clear there are places where users will benefit from it, he said. AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA, the U.S. carriers that have invested most heavily in Wi-Fi, were not able to share any information about the types of infrastructure deployed in their hotspots.

Before consumers will commonly be able to go to Wi-Fi hotspots and take advantage of 11ac speeds, the technology upgrade process may get even more complex. There's likely to be a chicken-and-egg problem, said analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis.

"I have no interest in upgrading my infrastructure in my hotspots to ac if the devices don't support it," Jarich said. "On the other hand, if I'm a device vendor, do I care about putting ac in a device if the hotspot infrastructure isn't out there?"

Mobile Wi-Fi is likely to tap into the additional speed and capacity of 11ac on a case-by-case basis instead of wholesale adoption, they said. High-demand venues and high-end devices will kick it off, and even for them, it may take two or three years, Rehbehn said.

"This is not going to be driven by the number of ac-enabled hotspots out there," he said. "It's going to be driven by something a little bit more subjective, which is, how vital is it for end-user satisfaction to be able to hop on those networks when they come across them?"

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags mobilewirelessNetworkingWi-Fi AllianceWLANs / Wi-Fi

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?