It was almost three years ago that the IEEE 802.11ac wireless networking standard, also called Gigabit Wi-Fi, was certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. At the time, consumers of all varieties were hopeful for the list of improvements in 802.11ac over 802.11n, including a multi-station WLAN throughput of at least 1 Gbps (gigabit per second). Recently, the research company OpenSignal ran analyses to observe global usage of 802.11ac, including how prevalent the technology truly is in wireless networking. While this research is more useful to individual consumers, firms can also use the insights to get a sense for whether the 802.11ac technology is worth investing in.
It turns out that, generally, 802.11ac is lagging in usage share behind its older brother, 802.11n. This graph shows the usage in smartphone Wi-Fi connections, but it still gives a good indication that adoption of the 802.11ac standard is relatively slow worldwide.
To be considered in the 802.11ac category on this list, both the smartphone and router in question need to be up to the 802.11ac standard, so the percentages of 802.11ac might be slightly misleading. Still, the numbers would seem fairly low for a technology that was officially certified in mid-2013. An OpenSignal blog post did have some optimism for future 802.11ac usage, noting that 802.11n-capable smartphones were not introduced until 2010, and now that technology is used in greater than 60% of phones and routers in all nine of the countries listed on the above chart.
Usage statistics are interesting and informative, but perhaps more relevant to customers (individual and corporate) is network speed. The OpenSignal data indicated that 802.11ac connections usually are not even close to maxing out on available speeds. Among smartphones, the average for these connections is a mere 32.4 Mbps, quite a bit lower than 1 Gbps speed potential given by the network standard. (And even this is more than twice the average of previous 802.11 network standards in the a/b/g/n group.) The reason for this is that these wireless connections are rate-limited by the throughput of the wired broadband connection from the router. Therefore, businesses – who often have private internal Wi-Fi networks and speedy wired connections – are at an advantage over individual consumers for getting faster speeds. But this advantage depends largely on the wireless access point chosen by the firm. Since 802.11ac speeds often tower over wired speeds, particularly with the 802.11ac-Wave2 standard continuing to gain enterprise market share, access point bandwidths are becoming more important.
As expected, high-end networking vendors have risen to meet the demand. Cisco’s lists several products on their website that are Wave2-compliant access points, including their Aironet 2800 and 3800 series. Other companies, including Aruba (a division of HPE) and most recently Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (ALE), have introduced new Wave2 access points as well. ALE also just introduced the OmniSwitch 6860E-P24Z8, an access switch that is mainly designed to interface with their Wave2 access points.
While Wave2 access points cost slightly more than their original 802.11ac counterparts, it makes sense for firms to start or continue deploying these access points. An access point is not the only limiting factor in network speed, any more than a router is; however, as applications continue to feature increased file sizes, it makes sense for businesses to keep on top of upgrading to the latest networking technology.