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802.11ac: Don’t Wipe Out With Wave 1.5

Kenneth FernandesDo you know for certain that those Wave 2 access points you’re selling aren’t a premature version in disguise?

Making that distinction can be more difficult than it looks.

You’ve probably heard by now that enterprise-grade 802.11ac wireless access points are arriving from manufacturers in “waves,” or phases. The first wave of 11ac APs started shipping in the second half of 2013, and the majority of devices on the market today can be considered Wave 1.
The second wave of 802.11ac access points started shipping in the second half of 2015 — or did they? Some experts challenge the notion that these APs are truly Wave 2 because they don’t offer the full feature set promised for the second wave. It’s important for solutions providers and resellers to know the difference between waves so they can evaluate new equipment and keep customers from making an expensive mistake.

True 802.11ac Wave 2 access point features should include:

  • Data rates upwards of 3.5 Gbps, because you have the 5 GHz 11ac radio, which is 3.5 Gbps max data rate, as well as the 2.4 GHz 11n radio, which delivers a max data rate of 450 Mbps. Those combined are upwards of 3.5 Gbps versus 1 Gbps in earlier devices.
  • 160 MHz channels versus 80 MHz. This is important because a wider channel is like a highway with more lanes.
  • Multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) that enables transmission to up to four clients at the same time.
  • Standards-based Transmit Beamforming (TxBF) that may improving the data transmit rates for clients.
  • 2.5, 5 or 10 Gbps switch ports, or multiple Gbps ports with link aggregation.
  • Support for the 802.3at, aka “PoE plus,” power standard.

A handful of vendors that claim to have launched Wave 2 access points should really be calling their offerings “Wave 1.5.” These solutions have a myriad of shortcomings: They don’t yet support the promised four MU-MIMO clients, but instead support three. They don’t yet support 160 MHz channels. Although the usefulness of this feature in enterprises is likely limited to a remote office with just one access point (given you have only one 160 MHz non-overlapping channel in the United States and may need Dynamic Frequency Selection support) the capability should be there for investment protection.

The other killer app? The speed test! Wave 1.5 devices don’t yet have an elegant solution for backhauling the promised “more than a Gigabit” of wireless traffic. These solutions ship with two 1 Gbps interfaces. To realize more than a Gig, one would need to run two cables, use two switch ports and enable link aggregation — a complex, expensive and cumbersome approach.

The fact is, Wave 2 is not yet certified for interoperability, and few clients are available. The Wi-Fi Alliance has not yet publicly announced an interoperability certification program for 802.11ac Wave 2 solutions, though it is expected to do so in the first half of this year, along with the arrival of full-featured 802.11ac Wave 2 products.

So, given the fact that the early Wave 2 (or, Wave 1.5) of 802.11ac is offered at a price premium over Wave 1, resellers need to be cautious when deciding whether these early solutions are worth the added cost. Wave 1 solutions remain a great option for lifecycle upgrades; high-user-density environments such as stadiums, conference centers, lecture halls and gymnasiums; and high-throughput applications, such as video and large file transfers.

With Wave 1 remaining such a valuable option, there is no reason to let customers wipe out early on Wave 1.5.

Kenneth Fernandes has 17 years’ experience in networking and security. Since 2007, he has been focused on wireless and security and considers himself a Wi-Fi enthusiast. Kenneth currently serves as a product manager at ADTRAN, where he oversees the wireless product lines that include ADTRAN’s Bluesocket virtual WLAN (vWLAN) solution. Follow him on Twitter at @wifiblogdotcom and at http://wifiblog.com.


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