Tapping the brakes on 802.11ac wave 2

802.11ac wave 2 is the splashy new kid in the wireless technology pool, but some experts caution that you might not want to let it play without lifeguards present.

802.11ac wave 2 is the splashy new kid in the wireless technology pool, but some experts caution that you might not want to let it play without lifeguards present just yet.

Wave 2 access points are now available from major wireless vendors, and have started to make inroads into the enterprise. The technology has been gaining ground in sales statistics recently, to the point where it’s starting to undercut sales of first-gen 802.11ac gear.

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Much of that has to do with the fact that it’s the latest and greatest – some shops will simply buy wave 2 because it’s the current cutting edge of wireless tech, and, obviously, that’s not necessarily the wrong idea if budgets are lined up.

But it’s unlikely that wave 2 technology, in and of itself, is something an enterprise really needs right now, according to some experts. The main issue is that, since there are almost no laptops, smartphones or other endpoints on the market right now that use wave 2, the most innovative features of the technology simply won’t work.

Tom Carpenter is CTO of CWNP, a vendor neutral-enterprise wireless networking certification and training group. He said that smaller deployments, in particular, don’t really need to move to wave 2.

“[T]he features introduced in Wave 2 just don’t benefit them much - even enhancements in chipset sensitivity and such,” he said.

Even for larger setups, Carpenter added, the benefits are largely indirect, and not the product of brand-new features built into the new access points.

“The point is that Wave 2 doesn’t actually provide ‘real’ benefits to most deployments because it is Wave 2, but rather just because of incremental improvements that would have been realized even if it was Wave 1 but newer chipset and filter implementations,” he told Network World.

Independent wireless networking consultant Omar Vazquez also warned that there are a lot of misconceptions about what wave 2 can currently accomplish.

“Sadly, vendor marketing just serves to make things worse (speeds, channel width, the miraculous MU-MIMO, etc.)” he said.

However, both Carpenter and Vazquez agreed that it’s also not necessarily a bad thing to have the latest in wireless gear. Vazquez noted that organizations don’t buy new Wi-Fi equipment every day, after all.

“[W]hen you consider that the typical refresh cycle for network infrastructure is between three and five years (in some cases it could go all the way to seven years), then it makes sense for organizations to invest in the newest at the time,” he said.

According to Carpenter, the point isn’t so much that wave 2 isn’t worth it, it’s more that it’s important to know precisely what upsides it offers. Wave 2’s much-vaunted MU-MIMO capability won’t actually help most deployments very much, and the ability to use wider wireless channels isn’t particularly useful.

“In most deployments MU-MIMO will give a sub-1% performance boost,” he said. “And wider channels really should not be used,” thanks to inefficient frequency re-use.

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