I’m lucky enough to preside over the premier event in wireless networking, Wireless Field Day. As part of that event, I often get to witness cool new product and technology introductions, but the debut of 802.11ac Wi-Fi at WFD3 was perhaps the most notable. Unlike breathless press releases and premature product introductions, the Wireless Field Day delegates were treated to a real look at 802.11ac in action!
Spectrum Analysis of 802.11ac with MetaGeek
The first “ooh-aah” 802.11ac moment at WFD3 was when MetaGeek showed off a spectrum capture in their Chanalyzer Pro product.
As demonstrated by Trent Cutler, Chanalyzer the full 80 MHz channel utilization of current 802.11ac gear, taking up a substantial chunk of the 5 GHz spectrum available for Wi-Fi.
An Introduction by Aruba Networks
Aruba Networks spent some time presenting background on 802.11ac reality and took questions from the delegate panel.
According to Aruba’s Lane, 802.11ac clients could come as soon as the end of 2012, but we shouldn’t expect much use until 2014 arrives. Lane also points out that we shouldn’t expect 7 Gbit Wi-Fi (the maximum theoretical performance) any time soon since it would require some serious hardware to pull it off. In fact, he suggests that 8-stream 802.11ac might never appear!
One of the major issues of 2.4 GHz WiFi is the fact that there are only three non-overlapping channels. This limits the performance of today’s devices in crowded areas. Although 5 GHz has much more spectrum, this will be gobbled up by 80 MHz 802.11ac channels. In fact, the apparent wide-open spaces in 5 GHz actually contain just one non-overlapping 160 MHz channel in the US! There are five 80 MHz channels, however. See Peter’s discussion at the 3 minute mark for a useful diagram!
On the positive side, multi-user MIMO in 802.11ac promises to allow parallel downlinks to devices like smartphones, improving sharability and performance for real-world users.
Aruba expects close-in clients (about half the current range), giving about 600 Mbps to 1.3 Gbps of data rate for PCs, 433 Mbps for smartphones, and 400 Mbps for tablets. The difference relates to the channel width and number of streams, with smartphones limited to a single stream.
Cisco Demonstrates 802.11ac
Cisco provided the biggest gasp of WFD3 when they actually turned on an 802.11ac network right there in front of the delegates! They used a prototype 802.11ac Wave 1 Module for the AP3600 in this demo. This will be released in the first calendar quarter of 2013.
802.11ac will come in at least two “Waves”. Wave 1 (in 2013) will be limited to 1.3 Gbps with single-user MIMO, 80 MHz channels, and 3 spatial streams. Wave 2, expected in 2014, will up this to 3.5 Gbps with 4 spatial streams, 160 MHz channels, and multi-user MIMO.
Like Aruba, Cisco will focus on 40 and 80 MHz channels for now and both are quite interested in multi-user MIMO since it helps with the masses of user devices everyone expects to be connecting to Wi-Fi in the near future.
The demo showed 802.11ac using 80 MHz on channel 36 and passing about 550 Mbps of data. This was impressive since many other devices were in the room using overlapping channels and impacting the demo. Cisco claims to have reached 700 Mbps in shielded rooms.
Gregor Vucajnk, one of the WFD3 delegates, even made his own spectrum capture of the Cisco demo, calling it “the beast!”
Although “7 Gigabit performance” makes for great headlines, the real advance of 802.11ac will be better throughput for more clients. As we move to 5 GHz, 802.11ac will support more simultaneous client connections with MIMO stability. Although performance will improve to 400+ Mbps, users will likely never see multi-gigabit throughput.
Thanks to Jennifer Huber for the photo of Gregor Vucajnk’s laptop (and arm!)