Let's be honest, the world of wireless Internet standards is a bit dull. The technology behind the amazing ability to wirelessly access nearly anything we want to know is, well, a snooze.
Nonetheless, some big Wi-Fi improvements over the past couple of years -- like the 802.11ac standard -- are improving the way we wirelessly connect to the Web, the quality of that connection, and how many people can access it. So let's take a quick look at what 802.11ac is and what it offers.
What the heck is 802.11ac?
The first thing to note is that 802.11ac has been around for a couple of years, and the latest talk about the wireless standard revolves around the second wave of the technology (more on that in a minute).
The 802.11ac standard was set up to improve on the old standard of 802.11n Wi-Fi signals. Basically, those older signals ran on 2.4 GHz (and sometimes 5 GHz) spectrum that could experience interference from things like microwaves or could get bogged down if you live in an apartment building in which many other people use Wi-Fi routers. But the 802.11ac standard strictly runs on 5 GHz, which is much less crowded and allows for some cool features.
Why would I want that?
There are a handful of reasons why 802.11ac is better than the previous 802.11n, so let's see why companies and consumers are jumping on board.
What it offers:
- More room: More clients (devices) can tap into a single access point (like a router) than under the previous standard.
- Kick up the bandwidth: There's more bandwidth for the clients connected to the same access point -- 80 MHz or 160 MHz compared to 802.11n's 40 MHz. This allows more devices on a network to have better connections.
- Battery life improvements: The 802.11ac standard could improve your device's battery life (if just a little) because it can connect more efficiently to Wi-Fi to exchange information.
- Faster wireless speeds: The first wave of 802.11ac offered speeds up to 1.3 Gbps, and the second wave brings those up to 2.3 Gbps.
- Finding MIMO: Instead of just four possible spatial streams -- called multiple input multiple output, or MIMO -- available with 802.11n, the 802.11ac standard allows up to eight. This means that if a device has several antennas it could receive significantly more data streams.
Yeah, but is 802.11ac Wave 2?
The second wave of the 802.11ac standard adds an important new feature to the list, and routers that are capable of the new feature are just getting off the ground.
It's called MU-MIMO, which stands for multiuser multiple input and multiple output. That may sound a bit confusing, but essentially it means new routers with the second wave of 802.11ac capability will determine which wireless devices need what data traffic, if they're moving or not, and how many antennas each device has.
That allows the router to send the data directly to a specific device on the network (called beamforming) in the most efficient way for each device, and to provide the best user experience for each client. The new MU-MIMO routers will help expand the capabilities of Wi-Fi, allowing for more capacity and better wireless signals to the growing number of Wi-Fi connected devices.
Who benefits from 802.11ac?
A handful of companies are making big plays in router hardware, but possibly none as big as Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO). In fiscal 2014, wireless routers made up about 21% of the company's hardware revenue.
With the expansion of 802.11ac, it appears the company could continue to benefit. Consumer Wi-Fi device shipments are expected to hit 219 million in 2020, with a market size of $13.5 billion. This year alone, 71 million 802.11ac devices are expected to ship worldwide, according to ABI Research.
Cisco will have to contend with Qualcomm, Broadcom, and other players. But with the company's current focus on the space and its release of new 802.11ac Wave 2 routers, Cisco is poised to benefit from the growing Wi-Fi router market and the new wireless standards.