802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 1/30/2013 | 16 comments

Andrew Froehlich
If you read my article on 802.11ac back in August and wrote off this new protocol, it might be time to think again. Changes coming from the FCC may help 802.11ac significantly.

In that article, I described several shortcomings of the newest WiFi protocol and why it wasn't a particularly useful upgrade for companies that support a lot of wireless users. Much of the reasoning was due to the fact that, to achieve much faster speeds than what 802.11n can provide, you have to sacrifice user capacity to achieve higher throughput rates. With the continued proliferation of BYOD, user capacity is increasing, which negates any possibility of configuring a network for more speed.

The primary problem behind the capacity vs. speed issue is how 802.11ac achieves faster speeds than 802.11n. Speed gains are found primarily through channel bonding techniques. Channel bonding links multiple wireless channels together, so that a single wireless communication leverages two, four, and even eight times the amount of 5GHz frequencies as a standard 20MHz 802.11n transmission. But bonding channels together limits the number of wireless devices that can talk at one time without overlapping frequencies. If there are very few WiFi users, channel bonding works great. But you quickly run into capacity issues as the number of simultaneous users increases.

In the US, the current 5GHz spectrum allocated for WiFi consists of 22 sets of 20MHz channels. Quite frankly, it's simply not enough space to create 160MHz or even 80MHz bonded channels on wireless networks that have a moderate or high number of simultaneous users. Trying to get ahead of the obvious problem, the FCC has announced its intention to allocate more frequency space in the 5GHz range, raising the number of possible 20MHz channels to 35. This will help alleviate much of the overlapping claustrophobia and will give wireless admins the opportunity to bond channels -- even in heavily used wireless networks.

Even with this news, you might not want to run out and buy new 802.11ac hardware just yet. For one thing, the adoption of 802.11ac end devices is likely to be slow. For another thing, the FCC announced only that it is looking to allocate more bandwidth. This hasn't been done yet. Who knows if and when this might occur?

But the point is that 802.11ac cannot be completely written off in the enterprise the way we once thought. If you need to put in new installations or upgrade an aging system in the next 12 to 24 months, the cost differences between implementing 802.11n and an 802.11ac wireless network are certainly worth a look.

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SaneIT   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   2/1/2013 7:42:30 AM
Re: Good news!
I suspect that the other OEMs are looking at it since Apple is working with Broadcom.  It only makes sense that Broadcom is working with other OEMs but that doesn't mean that ac is ready to roll out.  It makes me wonder if they expect to be pushing the FCC to work faster in regard to releasing the spectrum.  I don't suspect Apple is in the habit of spending money designing new products only to scrap portions of them at the 11th hour.
David Wagner   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/31/2013 11:57:36 AM
Re: Good news!
@Curt- Personally, i hope it is a landgrab. I would set up a bunch of computers endlessly streaming cats playing pianos to keep my binded channels for when I needed it and leave my co-workers out in the cold. :)
David Wagner   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/31/2013 11:56:11 AM
Re: Good news!
@SaneIt- I suspect it doesn't cost them that much to plan for AC. They know eventually it will come. I suspect every OEM is already thinking about it if they haven't already starting working on it.
David Wagner   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/31/2013 11:53:52 AM
Re: Good news!
Thanks for the amplification, Curt. Anyone have any idea who those existing users are?
SaneIT   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/31/2013 11:05:17 AM
Re: Good news!
I saw earlier this month that Apple is calling 802.11ac the successor to 802.11n devices in it's product line.  It sounds as if they are ready to pull the trigger, if the space isn't allocated yet are they jumping the gun or do you think this is more of a be ready for if/when the space is re-allocated?
CurtisFranklin   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/31/2013 12:36:40 AM
Re: Good news!
@Andrew, I haven't been through all the specs on ac, so I have a question on the channel-bonding: Do the AP radios automatically drop back on the number of bonded channels when they detect congestion, or is this a first-user land-grab for bandwidth? I can see the former being much more processor-intensive for the AP, but it would help preserve available channels to at least a small extent.
CurtisFranklin   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/31/2013 12:25:09 AM
Re: Good news!
@Dave, to amplify @Andrew's answer just a bit, the FCC can designate primary and secondary users of spectrum. It's possible that 802.11ac could be designated a secondary user of part of the spectrum -- which means that, in the case of interference with the primary user, the owner of the 802.11ac access point would be legally responsible for eliminating the interference.

5GHz, at the power allowed for 802.11ac, would make a pretty good secondary user in most cases, but it will be interesting to watch the comments that come in during the mandatory comment period. At that point we'll find out just how much the existing user communiities care about remaining the only users of the frequencies.
Susan Nunziata   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/30/2013 9:35:20 PM
More perspective on 802.11ac
Great post, Andrew. It's encouraging to see movement toward resolving the issues you had highlighted in your earlier blog. For those who are interested, here's some additional perspective on what the new 802.11ac standard may mean for IT and network admins.
tekedge   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/30/2013 6:59:14 PM
802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar
@Andrew - How would the speed performance be when I have multiple wireless devices connected within my house. Would I see a constant performance across all devices or would it drop as I add more devices?
Andrew Froehlich   802.11ac: Back on the Enterprise Radar   1/30/2013 3:29:38 PM
Re: Good news!
The space is allocated and used for both government and private uses. This communication will either have to be moved or revoked...it's not likely to affect most of us however.
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