When shopping for Wi-Fi products, you may have come across terms like 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac and wondered what they mean. Over the years, Wi-Fi technology has improved allowing for faster download speeds and greater range. 802.11ac is the newest form of Wi-Fi technology that offers the fastest speeds yet.  

Depending on your age, this may bring back memories or it might be a history lesson. In the 1990s, Internet access was commonly achieved at home through dial-up Internet access speeds of up to 56 Kbps (kilobits per second). As broadband permeated homes around the turn of the century, 10 Mbps (megabits per second) connections to a modem were achievable by using Ethernet cables.

Ethernet hookups grew in popularity as broadband speeds increased, but this limited connectivity in multi-computer homes. With prices of PCs dropping, demand for wireless access to home networks grew, and the answer came in the form of 802.11b wireless networking (Wi-Fi), allowing computers up to 11 Mbps of wireless data transfer.


802.11b wasn’t the first type of Wi-Fi but this guide is only meant to touch on past common W-Fi standards. 802.11b had very limited range. In 2003, the first 802.11g standard Wi-Fi products hit the market, offering expanded range and speeds up to 54 Mbps.  As time passed and online video streaming and gaming grew in popularity, 802.11n products were introduced- first as drafts, and finally as a standard in 2009.

A brief history of Wi-Fi

1999 802.11b Wi-Fi introduced, limited range, speed up to 11 Mbps
2003 802.11g Wi-Fi introduced, better range, speed up to 54 Mbps
2007 802.11n Wi-Fi introduced, increasing speed up to 150/300 Mbps
Today 802.11ac offers better range, speed up to 1000 Mbps (gigabit speed)


Among 802.11n products are varying options, the most common of which are 150 and 300 Mbps. All three of these standards use the 2.4 GHz band. Dual band 802.11n products integrate the 5 GHz band as well. We won’t get into 802.11a, an earlier 5 GHz standard, as it was not commonly used in homes. Here we are in 2014 and we have yet more numbers and letters to deal with: 802.11ac. 

What can AC do for me?

802.11ac increases the maximum speed on a network up to 1,000 Mbps (Megabits per second).

When 802.11n was introduced in 2007, most computer manufacturers including Apple chose to use only one or two antennas resulting in a maximum of 150 to 300 Mbps on 802.11n. Therefore 802.11ac is up to three times faster than most 802.11n computers and Macs.

Wi-Fi speeds compared


According to an article by Stephen Shankland, we can expect a billion 802.11ac Wi-Fi devices by the end of 2015. 802.11ac operates on the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands and offer speeds up to 1000 Mbps from your home router. So 802.11ac will be the new norm, but what benefits does it bring beside faster theoretical maximum speeds? After all, your home WiFi has only a 25 Mbps downstream, isn’t 300 Mbps 802.11n sufficient for you?

More Users

802.11ac brings the ability to handle more users and traffic from one access point. This prevents congestion and bottlenecks as more users and devices join the network.

According to a Cisco white paper on 802.11ac entitled “802.11ac: The Fifth Generation of Wi-Fi." 802.11ac routers can provide “more available bandwidth for a higher number of parallel video streams.” Sometimes that video buffering message we get on Netflix or Youtube can be attributed so slower ISP speeds. But it can also be because somebody on another computer in your house is trying to watch a video or do a large download at the same time, causing a bandwidth bottleneck. 802.11ac is designed to fix this.

The Cisco white paper goes on to add “802.11ac achieves its raw speed increase by pushing on three different dimensions:

  • More channel bonding, increased from the maximum of 40 MHz in 802.11n, and now up to 80 or even 160 MHz (for 117% or 333% speed-ups, respectively)
  • Denser modulation, now using 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), up from 802.11n's 64QAM (for a 33% speed burst at shorter, yet still usable, ranges)
  • More multiple input, multiple output (MIMO). Whereas 802.11n stopped at four spatial streams, 802.11ac goes all the way to eight (for another 100% speed-up). “

Smart antennas

A new technology called “Beam Forming” allows 802.11ac to focus Wi-Fi signals where they are needed, rather than broadcasting all signals in a 360-degree pattern.

When signals are broadcast in all directions, the result is a weaker and slower connection. Beam Forming is a “Smart” way of sending and receiving Wi-Fi signals based on where they are needed.

For example, if your router is downstairs and your Mac is located in a bedroom upstairs, rather than broadcast signals in all directions at the same power (including to your neighbors), Beam Forming technology focuses signals toward your bedroom thereby improving your speed and connection.

802.11ac devices are backward compatible with 802.11n and g routers, but you need an 802.11ac router at home to take advantage of 802.11ac specifications. You can still get 802.11n routers in big box stores, but eventually all router offerings will be 802.11ac. New computers will include internal 802.11ac cards, but getting an 802.11ac USB WiFi device for your current computers would be wise. You can use your current internal Wi-Fi cards to connect to an 802.11ac router, but performance will be the same as you get with your 802.11n router.

Alfa Network, Inc. and Rokland are delivering 802.11ac solutions

Alfa Network, Inc. and Rokland LLC have partnered together since 2007 to bring you the best products of the 802.11n and 802.11g standards. We continue to do so with new 802.11ac equipment. This month we have available several new 802.11ac USB upgrades for Microsoft Windows computers, as well as a brand new 802.11ac Wi-Fi router from Alfa, model AC1200R. Click on the items below to learn more about each one.

Alfa AWUS036ACH 802.11ac High Power AC1200 Dual Band WiFi USB Adapter

Alfa AC1200R 802.11ac 1200 Mbps Gigabit Long Range Wi-Fi Router

Alfa AWUS036AC 802.11ac Long Range AC1200 Dual Band WiFi USB Adapter

Conclusion

In summary, 802.11ac is the latest and greatest in Wi-Fi networking and does provide a number of real world benefits from speed increases to the ability of a single access point to manage more connections at once. To make sure your network is compliant, you need an 802.11ac standard router, and it is advisable that all computers on your network have 802.11ac functionality.

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This article contains portions reprinted from a trade article with permission