802.11ac on the Horizon; Will You Be Ready?

Nick McLain
Feb 25, 2013

wireless access pointAs I walked through the countless booths at CES last month, I encountered more than a few routers with 802.11ac capability.

With this high-throughput networking standard expected to take off quickly when it’s approved late this year, the early appearance of these routers got me wondering: What effect, if any, will 802.11ac have on CEDIA member companies?

“I think it’s going to be a big deal for the CEDIA market,” Trent Cutler, trainer at Metageek, says. “It’s really geared around video streaming.”

Metageek, a CEDIA member, is the creator of Wi-Spy, a popular wireless spectrum analyzer. Wireless is their bread-and-butter, day in and day out. Cutler says that instead of trying to utilize the oversaturated 2.4 GHz band, 802.11ac will reside on the less-clogged 5 GHz spectrum.

It allows for channels to be as much as 160 MHz wide (2.4 GHz only goes to about 20 MHz) and contains roughly eight times as many channels as 2.4 GHz.

“You’re going to get faster throughputs, and the most important part of that is, the faster you can send data, the quicker you are off the channel so other devices can use it,” Cutler says.

The 802.11ac standard has been called “gigabit Wi-Fi” as it will theoretically support throughput of one gigabit per second. The potential for those gigabit-per-second speeds is there, says Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing and program management director for the Wi-Fi Alliance, which is working with IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) on the standard.

She says 802.11ac will be particularly beneficial to homes where more than one person is trying to watch video on separate devices. “I have two kids, and on many occasions on my home network, they’re both streaming Netflix, and I’ve tried to do a GoToMeeting, and it won’t work,” Davis-Felner says. “One of the key values of 802.11ac is that it will push migration to dual-band [offering connection to either 2.4 or 5 GHz], so you could put some multimedia on 5 GHz and others on 2.4 GHz.”

Cutler says there are two other significant benefits from 802.11ac: beam forming and multi-user multiple-input and multiple-output (MU–MIMO). “With beam forming, basically, [device manufacturers] can shape the [Wi-Fi] wave to go in a direction instead of omni-directional,” he says. “They can shape it so they can reduce interference and the impact from interference.”

MU-MIMO differs from its predecessors in that instead of transmitting to one stream at a time, it can transmit to multiple sources at the same time, and it can transmit different data to each end source, Cutler says.

When Should You Start Carrying 802.11ac Product?

Cutler believes that it’s probably too soon for CEDIA members to carry 802.11ac products, although he believes the time to raise awareness is now. “We haven’t seen iPads or Macs take up 802.11ac yet, and customers will want it built in,” he says. “But definitely by the fourth quarter of this year, there will be a lot more residential products out there, and Apple devices should have support built in.”

There are already rumors that this year’s Macs will have 802.11ac connectivity, which would be a huge boon to the standard’s mass adoption.

Davis-Felner says the Wi-Fi Alliance will begin certifying 802.11ac products in April, which should increase the number of product offerings. Bruce Kraemer, the chairman for the IEEE 802.11 Working Group, says while IEEE does not recommend releasing products until the standard has been officially ratified, he does not expect significant changes on the current draft, 5.0, from the final version, which they expect to ratify and publish near the end of 2013.

Why Does It Matter to the CE Sphere?

The most appealing aspect to 802.11ac rests in video and audio streaming to different devices throughout the house through the LAN — with HD quality. “I could see 802.11ac in your Blu-ray player and in your TV, so now there’s no cable required to get the HD signal from the Blu-ray to the TV,” said Shawn Lemay, CEDIA’s 2012 Volunteer of the Year and owner of Sound & Theater in New York. “That ends the problem of retrofit issues with TVs above the mantle or the cable box, so it’s more for us as integrators being able to get HD to where it wasn’t easily available in the past.”

Lemay adds that this could also mean streaming video from your 802.11ac-enabled mobile device or tablet onto your TV in HD.

Cutler agrees. “I think a lot of its appeal will be from, for example, buying a video on the iPad and playing it to a TV or set of TVs without any type of problems,” he says. “If you streamed a Blu-ray over Wi-Fi [under prior standards], no one would be able to do anything else on wireless.”

MU-MIMO will enable one access point to stream video to three different streams simultaneously, adds Cutler.

With 802.11ac likely necessitating devices with dual-band capability, Cutler believes it represents an opportunity for our industry, as most customers won’t have the know-how to properly identify which channel (2.4 or 5 GHz) to put their devices on. “Most consumers make terrible decisions on what channel they should be using,” he says. “That is going to be the differentiator for your integrators.”

Any Possible Negatives to 802.11ac?

There is at least one downside to 802.11ac: range. The 5 GHz range won’t go as far, necessitating multiple access points (usually routers) over a large home or building. “Your industry will have to learn about proper deployment, which may mean placing two or three around the home instead of just one,” Cutler says.

Steve Rissi, CEDIA’s technical project manager, concurs. “While your customers will get a better experience, you’ll have to be careful about how you plan the network and design for wireless coverage,” he says.

Although labor costs may be reduced due to 802.11ac requiring fewer cable runs, Rissi sees the new technology as an opportunity rather than a threat. “It’s another way to get your foot in the door with new clients,” he says. “Does it open the threat for more DIY? Yes. But it also makes the market itself bigger.”

About Nick McLain
Nick McLain is CEDIA's Technical Journalist. He can be reached at nmclain@cedia.org



CEDIA blog posts are intended to provide general information and should not be regarded as legal opinions or advice.

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