Screw HD Video! Apple and Mobile Carriers Have Other Plans For 802.11ac

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Tim Higgins

The forces driving 802.11ac aren’t really what you think they are.

I’m out at Interop this week. This is my first time back to the Enterprise-focused networking show since 2008, mainly because SNB leaves coverage of "big iron" networking to folks much more qualified than I.

You may have gathered from my previous coverage, that I’m not a fan of the premature push of draft 802.11ac gear down the all-too-willing throats of way-too-gullible consumers. But I guess the scars from draft 802.11n gear have sufficiently faded or people are too willing to buy the "this time it’ll be different…really" assurances that vendors are mouthing.

NETGEAR and Buffalo are playing spy vs. spy to get bragging rights to shipping the first 802.11ac router next month with pitches that focus around HD video streaming. But from what I’m hearing around the show, more reliable HD video streaming isn’t the real reason for the push to get gear on the shelves 18 months before its standard is finalized.

No, the real reason for this drive to 11ac is higher bandwidth for mobile devices, with the push coming from formidable forces: the wireless carriers and Apple.

Mobile devices are pressed for space and power consumption, which means they use single-stream (one-antenna) Wi-Fi radios. With 802.11n, this limits them to a 65 Mbps maximum link rate, with about half that available for application-level bandwidth. Carriers aren’t really looking for more bandwidth to speed email or web browsing or even streamed web video. But they would like faster data transfer and the ability to screen-cast better quality video to nearby larger screens. Apple has similar desires, not just for the iPhone, but for the new iPad with its higher resolution screen.

An even more powerful driver is the data bandwidth pickle that wireless carriers have gotten themselves into. They have been extremely successful in getting consumers to suck more and more bandwidth from technologies that have nowhere near the capacity that is being demanded from them now, let alone the future. So they will be looking for high-bandwidth 11ac APs and routers to move all that data from their cellular-based networks to your (or Starbucks’) Internet service.

The other thing that higher bandwidth does is help save battery life. With the ability to push moderate amounts of data for email and web browsing through the air more quickly, devices can spend more time sleeping vs. sucking down their battery running the Wi-Fi radio. Of course if you insist on whiling away the hours watching YouTube clips, nothing is going to save your network or battery anyway.

So, go ahead and buy that draft 802.11ac router, but don’t wonder why you won’t be able to buy a matching draft 11ac USB adapter for it. The chip guys—with Broadcom in the lead and Qualcomm Atheros playing catchup—are focused on crafting embedded draft 11ac chipsets that will slip quietly into upcoming smartphones and tablets, ready to spring into higher-bandwidth action when they meet up with a draft 11ac router that you think you bought to get better HD streaming.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the next Apple devices have draft 11ac chipsets lurking inside. Nor would it be completely unexpected to see another stealth technology injection into an Apple Airport Extreme refresh sometime in the coming months.

Postscript: Don’t forget for one second while you are contemplating spending close to $200 to be the first kid on your block to participate in another Wi-Fi beta test, that you are dealing with draft standard products. Manufacturers are not eager to remind you and don’t even use the word draft in either their specs or product marketing materials.

I recently pinged the Wi-Fi Alliance for its position on this and received this response:

"The Alliance doesn’t tell members how/what to name their products. Rather, the organization is responsible for delivering the certification program and driving members to use the official program name, which has yet to be finalized."

Apparently, the Alliance doesn’t remember taking a more assertive stand on "pre-standard" 802.11n products.

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