There's an explosion of growth happening in the mobile computing market. Analysis and consulting firm Canalys reports that global smartphone shipments overtook PCs in 2011, with 488 million wireless devices shipped versus 415 million PCs. Among all computing device options, tablets show the greatest strides, with shipments increasing by a whopping 274 percent year over year.
In responding to the trend, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) drafted a new Wi-Fi standard — 802.11ac. With ratification expected early in 2013, 802.11ac will arrive at an opportune time. The new standard offers innovative application opportunities for organizations and will ease the concerns of network managers, who are increasingly anxious about ballooning wireless traffic on their networks.
63% The growth in smartphone shipments between 2010 and 2011, overtaking PC shipments during that same period
The current expansion in wireless device use in school districts, driven partly by BYOD initiatives, has IT managers scrambling to accommodate the increased traffic. "Some 11n network designs are struggling to meet the increasing demands placed on them," says Mike Spanbauer, principal analyst for enterprise networking and data center technology at the research firm Current Analysis.
"Few architects could have predicted the demands placed on their 11n networks due to the growth in mobile device usage in the last couple of years," says Spanbauer. "And expanding capacity is difficult. What 11ac offers looks quite attractive to [districts] that want to address this problem."
What 802.11ac offers is a theoretical maximum throughput of 1.3 gigabits per second initially, eventually scaling up to a possible 7Gbps. This new standard will operate in the 5 gigahertz band, offering more channels that are wider (80 megahertz in width versus the 40MHz width of 802.11n), and utilizing up to eight spatial streams to transmit data (compared with 802.11n's three spatial streams). All said, 802.11ac has the potential to be three times as fast as Wireless N, and will effectively double traffic capacity and improve the range and reception of wireless traffic.
The possibility of breaking the 1Gbps barrier — making wireless effectively faster than wired Ethernet — holds great promise for a variety of industries. "Closing the gap between wired and wireless makes initiatives like BYOD more attractive to CIOs," says Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst for ZK Research. "And with wireless carrying more video traffic, I see 11ac taking off in many areas."
Though full certification may still be months off, manufacturers are already bringing to market products that tout 802.11ac compatibility, such as Cisco's 802.11ac module for its Aironet 3600 Series Access Point and Netgear's R6300 WiFi Router. High-end notebooks shipping in late 2012 will likely offer 802.11ac connectivity, with broader adoption in other mobile devices in late 2013.
While 802.11ac is poised to change wireless computing, don't expect Wireless N to disappear anytime soon. Current Analysis' Spanbauer notes, "11ac will have the same issues that have to be addressed with 11n: reducing noise interference and security."
Critical mass will be reached, he says, when wireless users have an equivalent experience to wired users. "That will play a big factor in how quickly 11ac is adopted."