How not to waste your money on the second wave of 802.11ac wireless gear

Next-gen Wi-Fi might not be the right choice right now.


The best way to avoid wasting your money on Wave 2 of 802.11ac access points is to not buy them right away, and the second-best is to not overreact to their presence on your network.

asus rt-ac87u wifi router Asus

Early 802.11ac Wave 2 product: The Asus RT-AC87U Wi-Fi router 

Wave 2 APs have been on the market for about a year, dating back to last January’s release of the Asus RT-AC87U, but the technology hasn’t yet become commonplace among enterprise users.

The central difference between the two waves of 802.11ac technology is the use of multi-user MIMO – essentially, a system of multiple antennae that allows Wave 2 hardware to use a given piece of spectrum for more than one client at the same time, increasing throughput.

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This makes backhaul capacity the main technical sticking point for Wave 2 deployments, according to experts. The theoretical maximum data rate for a Wave 2 AP is 6.8Gbps, and even though real-world users are unlikely to come close to that, the capacity increase over previous-generation technology could still throttle 1Gbps connections.

Tearing out and replacing existing category 5 cable is, in many cases, a huge investment of time and money.

“If you’ve got open spaces and just a handful of APs, cabling may be a non-issue and you can do it for pennies for the foot,” said Lee Badman (@wirednot), a network architect at Syracuse University. “Where you’ve got historic buildings and you’ve gotta add pathways and stuff like that, the cost of cabling can far exceed the cost of the access points themselves.”

Enter Cisco, which is marketing a line of “multigig” switches designed to boost throughput on existing cables via new transmission standards. The NBASE-T Alliance was founded to promote those standards, as well as Cisco’s value proposition.

Zeus Kerravala (@zkerravala), an analyst and Network World contributor, said that while Cisco may be slightly exaggerating the need for its multigig hardware, it’s still a potentially valuable technology.

“Being the only [multigig] vendor, they’re probably going to overhype it, right?” he said. “But I do think, if you’re upgrading your wired network right now, it’s something you should think about.”

Syracuse's Badman warns against going out of your way to embrace multigig, however, citing the potentially major difference between Wave 2’s theoretical maximum throughput and likely operational speeds.

“Some people in the industry are saying that even if we get to the full promise of 11ac, all you’re ever going to need is a gig, and as long as you’ve got a decent cat 5, cat 6, you’re never going to run faster than that,” he said.

Indeed, it’s far from clear that Wave 2 itself is going to become required technology anytime soon.

“There’s no more hype in the world than in the wireless realm, unfortunately,” Badman noted. “What a great place to be in marketing.”

Another potential complicating factor for Wave 2 wireless is the probable need for Power-over-Ethernet-Plus compliance, according to IDC analyst Nolan Greene (@ngreeneidc). He said that PoE+ is something that many organizations have dragged their feet on implementing, but that the higher energy requirements for Wave 2 hardware may make it necessary.

“I don’t really see how organizations are going to get away with not putting in PoE+ or putting in a power injector to bridge the gap. That will slow down some enterprises in moving to Wave 2.”

Even if you have PoE+ in place, and backhaul burly enough to handle the extra data, Wave 2 isn’t going to do much for you right away, since no end-user devices are yet on the market.

“One of the things businesses have to ask themselves is ‘do you need it?’” Kerravala said. “Wave 2 clients aren’t expected out until 2016, so you really need both ends of it being compliant.”

For the moment, then, it’s probably best to wait on Wave 2.

MORE: Full speed ahead for Gigabit Wi-Fi

This story, "How not to waste your money on the second wave of 802.11ac wireless gear" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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