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Understanding 802.11ac: Explanation and Benefits

In January, the new Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard – 802.11ac – was approved.

Developed between 2011 and 2013, 802.11ac is a wireless networking (Wi-Fi) standard providing high-throughput wireless local area networks (WLANs) on the 5 GHz band. It builds on concepts in its predecessor, 802.11n. Although 802.11n devices are still widely used, experts have speculated that devices with the 802.11ac standard will be common by 2015.

To understand the new standard, one must explore the changes between 802.11n and 802.11ac and the benefits of those changes. Keep reading to learn more.


802.11ac introduced the following new features:

  • Channel bonding – In 802.11n, the maximum was 40 MHz; the new standard allows 80 or up to 160 MHz (117 and 333 percent increases in speed, respectively).
  • Multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) spatial streams – 802.11n allowed support for four spatial streams; 802.11ac supports up to eight (a 100 percent increase in speed).
  • Downlink Multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) – 802.11ac allows multiple stations (each with one or more antennae) that can transmit or receive independent data streams simultaneously.
  • Modulation – 802.11n used 64 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM); 802.11ac uses 256 QAM with ¾ and 5/6 optional modes (a 33 percent increase in speed in shorter ranges).
  • Beamforming – Standardized sounding and feedback for compatibility between vendors was non-standard in 802.11n, making beamforming difficult between different vendor products.

To sum up the changes, 802.11ac allows increased speeds and improved scalability by expanding on the channel bonding, MIMO and modulation aspects of 802.11n. What all of this really means is that 802.11ac has the potential to increase throughput and data transfer speeds up to three times that of 802.11n.

So how do these changes translate to business benefits for users of the new standard?


Experts note that this increase in speed will be prove particularly beneficial in streaming media such as HD videos, transferring files and backing up data, as well as extending the range of Wi-Fi networks.


Theoretically, 802.11ac mobile devices could be accomplishing more in a shorter amount of time and businesses would require less Wi-Fi coverage to support them. For those reasons, the new standard could make it easier for enterprises to employ mobile or BYOD programs – or enhance the capabilities and operations of such programs already put in place.

As a result of these changes, wireless networks will also be able to experience improvements or increases in:

  • The number of clients supported by an access point
  • User experiences – low-lag gigabit speeds make file downloads and email syncs quicker
  • Available bandwidth for parallel video streams
  • Device battery life – a device’s Wi-Fi interface can easily exchange data with its access point, then quickly go back to “sleep”
  • MU-MIMO – 802.11 can only transfer a single frame at a time, while MU-MIMO allows an access point to sent multiple frames to multiple clients simultaneously (ideal for BYOD programs where devices often only have a single antenna)

The new standard is also beneficial because of its backwards compatibility. It is designed to coexist with other devices in the 802.11 family. This allows flexibility for enterprises considering a mobile infrastructure. They have the choice of implementing the widely-used and available 802.11n access points; implementing 802.11ac access points for improved speed and performance; or implementing a modular 802.11n access point that is field-upgradable to 802.11ac.

It may take some time before you see 802.11ac being used for enterprise mobility purposes – or at least that’s what the history of the 802.11 family would suggest. As mentioned, the new standard is not expected to be common until 2015. In the meantime, that gives businesses a chance to assess the new standard and how it will fit into their current operations – specifically comparing it to 802.11n and considering the added values it may provide.

For help in this process, don’t hesitate to contact an enterprise mobility expert at Lowry Solutions.

Also read –  Top applications for 802.11a

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