How many Wi-Fi devices are currently humming along in your home? If it’s more than three, or you like to frequently stream HD movies, a new generation of Wi-Fi is coming soon, and it’s worth your attention. The new standard, called 802.11ac, more than doubles the theoretical speed at which broadband signals travel between current Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
Note the word theoretical. The upper data-speed limit of 802.11ac devices is 1.3 Gbps, compared to the 450 mbps limit of 802.11n, which is the latest Wi-Fi standard before ac. Few 802.11n Wi-Fi users actually get 450 Mbps, and it’s unlikely 802.11ac users will see 1.3Gbps, so why does the new standard make a difference?
When it comes to sheer speed, it really doesn’t. But in terms of capacity, it does, and the new speeds imply more capacity. Wi-Fi networks are like pipes with data flowing inside of them. It takes data a certain amount of time to get from one end of the pipe to another; that’s the speed. The width of the pipe determines how much data can simultaneously flow through a network at a certain speed.
The 802.11ac standard will allow more devices to connect to a network without degrading performance, and bandwidth intensive applications like HD movies will stream with fewer delays and better quality when beamed around a network, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry group that comes up with new standards and certifies compliant devices.
What does 802.11ac mean for you? To start, unless you’re a Wi-Fi speed freak, there’s no need to run out and buy a new 802.11ac router or device. If your home network is slow, your broadband provider is probably to blame, not your PC or networking equipment.
It’s also important to understand that your network is only as fast as the devices connected to it. For example, let’s say you own a laptop with an 802.11n adapter and you buy an 802.11ac router. Your laptop will still only get 802.11n speeds. The good news though is that your existing Wi-Fi-compatible devices will work with a new, 802.11ac router, even if they don’t get the fastest-possible speeds.
Most laptops and tablets released in the coming months and years, even some smartphones, will be 802.11ac compatible. (The new MacBook Air is already 802.11ac compliant.) So if your current router suddenly dies, you should buy a new one that supports the 802.11ac standard, because your next devices will very likely be 802.11 compliant. At first, 802.11ac devices will probably cost a bit more than devices that don’t support the new standard, but it shouldn’t take long for 802.11ac routers to cost the same amount as 802.11n routers do today.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.