Gigabit WiFi speeds on the way, but beware the draft

Remember back in 2009, when the “n” was amended to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 wireless networking standard? Over the previous five years it took to go from initial draft to final approval, we were “treated” to a veritable soap opera of patent disputes and lawsuits. A new revision would come out every other year, but neither manufacturers nor IT departments wanted to wait for the final ratification.

“Draft-N” became a common and accepted term. We conducted many reviews of wireless routers over those years to try and sort the wheat from the chaff. It was a long road, filled with many good, and quite a few bad, attempts to jump onboard before the final standard was ready. 

When the amendment finally became official, the industry hardly noticed, and just stopped printing the “Draft” part on their boxes.

Well, last year the IEEE quietly started on the amendment covering the next level of wireless throughput. Since 802.11n was termed to cover “High Throughput,” they pretty much had no choice but to call the next version, 802.11ac, “Very High Throughput.” This is smart, because that way they can just keep adding a “very” with each new amendment.

You may also have noticed that the letters assigned to this amendment are “ac.” As we all know, this is what happens to a government document when you run out of letters of the alphabet: you just start again with “aa,” “ab,” and so on.

Devices made under this specification are expected to have from 1.6 to 3 times the transfer rates we are now used to with 802.11n devices. For wireless LANs, throughput is expected to exceed 1 gigabit/sec.

This is due to significantly widening the bandwidth used (up to 160 MHz), and doubling the multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) streams (up to eight). Although it is a bit early for anyone to make operational distance claims, the doubling of the MIMO streams should increase their range significantly.

According to its official timeline, IEEE expects to achieve final ratification of the amendment by the end of 2013. This schedule, of course, has no padding for possible patent lawsuits or what-have-you, because you can’t really predict that sort of thing. Heck, maybe this time everyone will play nice and it will get done close to on-time. Maybe. We’re looking forward to gigabit wireless speeds, but we’re a little worried about the process.

Just like with the “n” specification, manufacturers aren’t waiting for the potential drama to start, but are jumping in and starting to churn out “Draft-AC” devices. It didn’t take them long once the first chipset was made last December. This router by Netgear — featuring “5G” WiFi, no less — will be one of the first ones on the market.

We expect a bevy of them to follow soon, with many reviews by the GCN Lab on their heels.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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