Why the enterprise should forget about 802.11ac for now


Should your enterprise implement 802.11ac wireless? This is a question that IT executives are either asking themselves right now, or will soon, given the intense publicity generated in the wake of new consumer-grade 802.11ac wireless routers.

Part of the effect can already be seen in how WLAN sales are dipping--as enterprises wait on 802.11ac. Indeed, the launch of the Wi-Fi Certified ac program earlier this year does make it sound like a good time for businesses to start rolling out 802.11ac. However, my personal opinion is that unless you have truly compelling reasons to go with 802.11ac, the enterprise would do well to defer the decision to the latter part of 2014. I outline a few of my reasons below.

The power angle

The advanced 802.11ac radio is more power hungry than earlier iterations of Wi-Fi. As such, it will more likely require the use of the higher-powered 802.3at Power over Ethernet, or PoE, for sufficient juice to run with all capabilities enabled.

This blog by Ruckus Wireless last week pulled no punches in calling out a competitor, noting that businesses should only deploy its access points if they "don't mind being severely limited within the 2.4GHz environment" or "can live with limiting some of the physical connectivity functionality."

While it remains to be seen whether a PoE upgrade will continue to be mandatory with improved 802.11ac chipsets, businesses that are still on 802.11af PoE may well have to contend with extra infrastructure costs if they deploy 802.11ac today.

Lack of client devices

The handful of business-grade 802.11ac wireless APs on the market today typically support three spatial streams, which allows for a (theoretical) maximum data rate of 1.3Gbps in the 5GHz band. Though this is a significant improvement over 450Mbps 802.11n, the dearth of 802.11ac client devices renders this a moot point.

Detractors will argue that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) did incorporate 802.11ac into its latest MacBook Air laptops. However, it is also true that Apple chose not to put 802.11ac into its highly anticipated iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C smartphones. And with few smartphones or tablets equipped with 802.11ac capabilities today, this does make deploying it a rather pointless strategy for BYOD.

802.11ac is still in its early days

Finally, while 1.3Gbps is a good speed to have, we should keep in mind that 802.11ac does have a theoretical maximum speed of 7Gbps. A "second wave" of 802.11ac that implements four or more data streams should be arriving in the second half of 2014, and is expected to deliver significantly faster speeds.

However, the current indication is that this second wave of 802.11ac devices might require new processor chips--which means you will have to purchase new 802.11ac hardware in benefit. - Paul Mah  (Twitter @paulmah)

Note: Updated editorial to reflect the fact that some smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Note 3 does support 802.11ac.

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