Last December customers were peppering wireless LAN vendors with questions about whether to upgrade to the pre-standard-but-certified 802.11ac products flooding the market or hold off until 2015, when more powerful "Wave 2" Gigabit Wifi gear was expected to become prevalent.
A year later, even though Wave 2 products have begun trickling into the market, many IT shops seem less preoccupied with Wave 2 and more focused on installing the Wave 1 11ac routers, access points and other products at hand. After all, this first wave of 11ac is at least a couple times faster than last generation 11n, plus has more range, boasts better power efficiency and is more secure. And even Apple's new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus support it.
Surprisingly, 802.11ac products aren't much more expensive than 11n ones, if at all. That might help explain why market watcher Infonetics reported in September that "802.11ac access point penetration has nearly doubled every quarter and is starting to cannibalize 802.11n." And the company is optimistic that 11ac and Wave 2 products, plus carrier interest in the technology, will give the WLAN market a boost in 2015.
Ruckus Wireless, which sells WLAN gear to enterprises and carriers, sees customers taking a middle-of-the-road approach, buying some 11ac products now and figuring to buy more when Wave 2 products are plentiful. Ruckus is looking to let customers who do invest in 11ac now upgrade products to Wave 2 at little to no cost down the road.
Aruba Networks, which rolled out 802.11ac access points in May of 2013 to deliver more than 1Gbps throughput, is now shipping more 11ac than 11n gear.
"We're definitely seeing customers making the shift -- almost all of them are either actively looking at ac' or are starting to think about it in the next year," says Christian Gilby, director of enterprise product marketing and owner of the @get11ac Twitter handle. "What's really driving it is the explosion of devices. From a standards point of view, there are [more than 870] devices WiFi Alliance-certified for ac'."
Many of those devices were certified before the standard was finalized and do not support the performance-enhancing options that so-called Wave 2 products will feature. This includes support for multi-user MIMO, which allows transmission of multiple spatial streams to multiple clients at the same time. It's seen as being akin to the transition from shared to switched Ethernet.
Wave 2 chipsets and gear have begun trickling out, with Qualcomm being among the latest. But WiFi Alliance certification could still be quite a few months away maybe even into 2016 -- and that could make buyers expecting interoperability hesitate.
The real holdup for Wave 2, though, says Gilby, is that it will require a chipset change
in client devices such as laptops and tablets. "You really need the bulk of the clients to get upgraded before you see the benefits," he says. (A recently released survey commissioned by network and application monitoring and analysis company WildPackets echoed Gilby's sentiments and found that 41% of those surveyed said that less than 10% of their organization's client devices supported 11ac.)
Christian Gilby, director of enterprise product marketing, Aruba Networks
Gilby adds that while Wave 2 products will support double the wireless channel width, the government will first need to free up more frequencies to exploit this. Customers will also need to make Ethernet switch upgrades on the back-end to handle the higher speeds on the wireless side, and new 2.5Gbps and 5Gbps standards are in the works.
Nevertheless it sounds as though enterprise Wave 2 802.11ac products will start spilling forth next year, with high-density applications expected to be the initial use for them. "There's been some stuff on the consumer side... I think we'll see some enterprise products on the AP side in 2015...in fact, I'm pretty sure we will," said Gilby.
Ruckus Wireless vows to become one of the first vendors to market with a Wave 2 product in 2015 and has already had success with it in the labs using Qualcomm chips, says VP of Corporate Marketing David Callisch. Though he says vendors will really need to work hard on their antenna structures to make Wave 2 work well. "As the WiFi standards become more complex, having more sophisticated RF control is beneficial, especially when you're talking about having so many streams and wider channels." He says that "11ac is where it's at... Customers need the density. WiFi isn't about the coverage anymore, it's about capacity."
Like Gilby, Callisch says the big hold-up with 11ac Wave 2 advancing is on the client side, where vendors are always looking to squeeze costs. Wave 2 is backwards compatible with existing clients, but still...
"It's expensive to put ac' into clients," he says. "If you adopted Wave 2 products today you really couldn't get what you need to take full advantage of it. But that will change and pretty quickly."
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As for how customers are using 11ac now, Gilby says where they have already installed 11n products on the 5GHz band, they are starting to do AP-for-AP swap-outs. It can be trickier for those looking to move from 2.4GHz 11n set-ups.
802.11ac is also catching on among small and midsize organizations, which companies such as Aruba (with its 200 series APs) have started to target more aggressively. Many of these outfits opt for controller-less networks, with the option of upgrading to controllers down the road if their businesses grow.
It's not too soon to look beyond 11ac, either. The IEEE approved the 802.11ad (WiGig) standard back in early 2013 for high-speed networking in the unlicensed 60GHz radio spectrum band, and the WiFi Alliance will likely be establishing a certification program for this within the next year or so.
Aruba's Dorothy Stanley, head of standards strategy, says 11ad is "not really about replacing the W-Fi infrastructure, but augmenting it for certain apps."
She says it could have peer-to-peer uses, and cites frequently-talked about scenarios such as downloading a movie or uploading photos at an airport kiosk. These are applications that would require only short-range connections but involve heavy data exchanges.
Stanley adds that developing and manufacturing 11ad products has its challenges. Nevertheless, big vendors such as Cisco and Qualcomm (via its Wilocity buyout) have pledged support for the technology.
"It's something everybody is looking at and trying to understand where its sweet spot is," Stanley says. "The promise of it is additional spectrum for wireless communications."
Another IEEE standards effort dubbed 802.11ax is the most likely successor to 11ac, and has a focus on physical and media-access layer techniques that will result in higher efficiency in wireless communications.