No rush for enterprises to deploy 802.11ac Wi-Fi

The wireless standard offers high capacity and high density, but most enterprises don't need it yet

Wireless vendors are pushing the 802.11ac standard because it offers the fastest Wi-Fi speeds yet, but most Australian businesses can afford to wait another year before upgrading their Wi-Fi networks, according to analysts.

The IEEE standards body approved the 802.11ac specification in January last year. This amendment to the Wi-Fi standard is meant to achieve higher multi-user throughput in wireless local area networks (WLANs). It provides data rates of up to 7 Gbps in the 5GHz band — more than 10 times the speed of previous standards.

The question is whether these upgrades will mean much to the majority of businesses today.

“Yes, you can get [802.11ac] with high capacity and high density,” says Gartner analyst Bjarne Munch, “but the majority – 99.99 percent of enterprises – do not need this right now.”

Although there is no technical downside to upgrading now, most businesses will not be punished for waiting, said Telsyte analyst Rodney Gedda.

“IT managers may think it’s a prudent decision to just wait for another upgrade cycle,” the analyst said.

802.11ac is faster and more capable for streaming video than previous standards. It's also possible to cover a larger space with fewer access points using the standard. And it provides a significant increase in the number of devices to an access point at the same time.

However, many businesses may find their existing Wi-Fi systems are good enough for the time being and there is not a pressing need to pay the high price of deploying 802.11ac, said Munch.

“The need is not quite there yet. Very few need more than 5 [Mbps] per user, so there’s ample capacity in the existing 802.11n networks out there,” added Munch. 802.11n networks can theoretically provide up to 450Mbps bandwidth.

Without an immediate need for it, it might not make sense to pay what could be a 30 per cent premium for the latest and greatest Wi-Fi technology, said Munch. The analyst predicted that this premium will disappear by the end of this year or early next.

“Look at it from the cost point of view,” he advised. “If you don’t really need it right now, maybe you should just wait.”

With 802.11ac still a relatively new technology, the cost remains high and not as many devices support the standard compared to 802.11g, agreed Gedda. However, these are “teething problems” that will lessen over time, he says.

How soon an organisation should implement 802.11ac depends on its “appetite for wireless in general” and how active their user base is on wireless, the Telsyte analyst says.

Read more: How not to waste your money on the second wave of 802.11ac wireless gear

Universities and others in the education sector may find a more immediately pressing need to upgrade since they must cater for multiple wireless devices per student, he says.

Indeed, two early adopters of 802.11ac in Australia are Southern Cross University and MTC Australia, a job skills educator. Ash Kumar, the CIO of MTC, said the new network complemented the rollout of Google Chromebooks to free students from their desks.

Garnter's Munch said there may be currently be niche use cases for 802.11ac. For example, hospitals may need the extra bandwidth for X-rays and other big medical images, he said.

However, he warned that the addition of the faster wireless network could reveal bottlenecks in the wired network and companies should be aware that they might need to upgrade this infrastructure as well.

Businesses should remember that many of the same Wi-Fi limitations still apply to 802.11ac, said Gedda.

The 802.11ac standard can support more users per access point, but as with previous Wi-Fi generations the quality will degrade as more devices are connected and more data is consumed at the same time, says Gedda.

“It’s generally a generation shift in terms of speed and scalability, but ac will still suffer the fundamental challenges that Wi-Fi has. It’s not going to cure all the cancers of Wi-Fi,” the analyst said.

Gedda advises businesses without a pressing need for 802.11ac to start with a pilot program and wait until the product becomes more mature before full implementation, he says.

As IT managers consider an upgrade, they should also make sure to consider wireless management and security issues, he adds.

“It’s not just about speeds and feeds.”

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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