To Wave 2 or not to Wave 2?

The second wave of wireless networking gear based on the 802.11ac standard – collectively, “wave 2” – is the current cutting edge of Wi-Fi technology. But there’s a school of thought out there that it’s not a necessary upgrade for many companies.

The second wave of wireless networking gear based on the 802.11ac standard – collectively, “wave 2” – is the current cutting edge of Wi-Fi technology.

Boasting multi-user MIMO (meaning that it can service multiple client devices using its multiple antennae), wider channels, and a number of other bells and whistles, wave 2 hardware offers more throughput and better handling of multiple connections.

But is it really necessary? Generally, connection speeds are limited by other parts of the infrastructure, not the wireless connection. Cutting-edge gear, obviously, comes at a premium price. If the improvements over 802.11ac wave 1 aren’t crucially important to you, some argue, you might be better off skipping wave 2 and waiting for the next wireless standard – 802.11ax – to make it onto shelves.

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Where 802.11ac wave 2 is a strong incremental upgrade, 802.11ax (which is expected to hit in 2019) is a leap forward – it can, potentially at least, reach 10Gbps speeds, and has the ability to subdivide channels for better multi-device performance. Ajay Malik, a veteran of Cisco, Meru and HP, wrote earlier this year that many companies should simply wait for gear built to the 802.11ax standard to appear, instead of upgrading to wave 2 and then upgrading again to ax.

The type of generational improvement we’ll see between 802.11ac and ax fits the Wi-Fi upgrade pattern a lot better than the relatively smaller gap between ac wave 1 and wave 2, he said.

“Historically Wi-Fi went from 2Mbps to 11Mbps to 54Mbps to 300Mbps and 1.3Gbps,” Malik said via email. “That's what 11ax does, not wave 2. A generational leap is what we need.” (Malik is a Network World contributor, and wrote about this issue earlier this year.) The new standard is expected in 2019, and 802.11ax hardware should hit the market shortly thereafter.

But Michael Dickman, vice president of product line management at HPE/Aruba, argued that avoiding wave 2 just because it’s a less impressive upgrade in terms of total throughput doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“Do you really want to wait until 2019 to even consider a refresh?” he asked.

Moreover, according to Dickman, it’s far from settled that the huge speed boosts promised by ax will even be required for consumer use. Endpoint manufacturers haven’t seen the demand for faster wireless.

“The most urgent problem for that wireless network engineer is on network-level throughput and on application experience, and individual client throughput doesn’t seem to be the main challenge now,” he said.

That means that client density – which wave 2 ac substantially improves with multi-user MIMO capabilities – is likely to be a bigger issue in the networks of today and tomorrow, suggesting that it’s a more important upgrade than some of its detractors imply.

John Ciarlone is vice president of sales at Hummingbird Networks, a VAR that sells primarily Cisco/Meraki products. He said that even if the promised high speeds can be realized, limitations on the rest of the infrastructure could make them irrelevant.

“First of all, you have very few devices that have wave 2 as it is,” Ciarlone said. “Most people’s infrastructure won’t support it.”

“It’s great that you have a wireless AP that’ll support 2.5G, but you’re never going to have a switch that’s going to do that,” he added.

Realistically, of course, the decision on whether to go with wave 2 or wait for ax is situational. Businesses that are still using a/b/g/n gear should probably upgrade sooner rather than later, but a company that just finished a move to wave 1 ac access points doesn’t need to rush right out and buy wave 2.

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