Five Reasons Why Colleges are Taking the 802.11ac Plunge

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It's said that after seven years in a relationship, malaise and discontent can seep in causing the eye to wander to newer, more exotic objects of desire – it's called the seven-year itch. And as goes love, so goes Wi-Fi. We're now presented with the same predicament after seven long and fulfilling years with the 802.11n standard.

But is 802.11ac really the extramarital dalliance we're meant to pursue or just a distraction from a Wi-Fi standard that still meets our needs? If we take our cue from colleges and universities, the earliest adopters of Wi-Fi technology, it's clear that 802.11n needs to update its profile…. Or is it Tinder now?

Many detractors will say that 802.11ac hasn't yet lived up to its potential, but technically the same could be said about current iterations of 802.11n access points. So instead, let's take a different approach. Let's look at the top five reasons why universities are flocking to this new standard in its current form, as certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Reason #1: More devices, more apps, more multimedia

As any campus IT admin knows, throngs of new gadgetry shows up on campus every semester, including devices you've never even heard of until it's on the doorstep of the network. And these devices behave in elusive ways.

They buffer massive amounts of multimedia and then go silent, stick to APs when they should roam, talk multicast to other personal devices on the network, transmit low-priority background data at the same time as critical academic traffic. The only certainty of these devices is their uncertainty.

How does 802.11ac help? Here are just a few ways

  • A wider pipe: 802.11ac stitches together more spectrum per client, allowing 80-MHz channel widths. Think about it this way: when a campus moves from 20 MHz to 80 MHz, it automatically receives 4.5X more speed.
  • Better modulation: 802.11ac improves modulation to 256 quadrature amplitude modulation, or QAM. In optimum environments, this provides an additional 33% increase in throughput over the 64-QAM used by 802.11n.
  • Higher performance APs: New purpose-built 802.11ac APs have faster processors and more memory, improving client performance in high-density environments by more than 20% compared to 802.11n or to 802.11ac APs built on 802.11n hardware. This performance boost exists even in networks that only have 802.11n clients.
  • More efficient use of the air:  With 802.11ac, data is transmitted at a higher rate, meaning devices get off the channel faster leaving air for other devices to transmit and receive.

Reason #2: Coverage

 Universities need to provide Wi-Fi throughout large buildings and outdoor areas, making adequate RF coverage a must. 802.11ac has some tricks up its sleeve.

First, borrowing from the capacity discussion above, it's all about rate vs. range. Even though the ability to throw a signal is nearly equivalent between 802.11n and 802.11ac, the new speeds (data rates) can provide twice the capacity at an equivalent range.

This means that users suffering through a slow rate in one coverage area using 802.11n would immediately enjoy faster speeds with 802.11ac.

Even better, now that Explicit Transmit Beamforming is a mandatory part of the 802.11ac standard, radios can focus signal on individual clients for a huge speed improvement. Our testing has shown that speeds can improve by over 30% per client (2 MCS index levels)!

Finally, purpose-built 802.11ac APs use the newest antenna designs and the full dimensions of the AP to increase wireless signals even further.

Reason #3: Compatibility

 Now that Wi-Fi Alliance has certified 802.11ac clients and purpose-built 802.11ac APs, the risk of deploying non-interoperable equipment is virtually gone. Not only does the certification look at 802.11ac products, but also interoperability to 802.11 a/b/n gear that was previously certified.

The Wi-Fi alliance has a great track record of ensuring interoperability of Wi-Fi products. If a campus has the budget to upgrade now, or needs to add new APs for coverage or capacity, moving to 802.11ac is a no-brainer.

Reason #4: Security

 Malicious activity on the network is a double-whammy in universities. First, it can expose highly sensitive student data. Second, it can bring down the Wi-Fi network, which is business-critical, impacting everything from computer-based testing to unified communications (UC).

802.11n networks can't protect against what they can't see. While there is some backward compatibility built into 802.11ac management frames, there are still many 802.11ac-based threats that can't be addressed with an existing 802.11n network.

Deploying 802.11ac, even as an overlay to monitor and protect the air will give visibility into the higher modulation and wider channels, closing this security gap and ensure high performance and reliability.

Reason #5: Cost

 It seems counter-intuitive, but moving to 802.11ac can deliver cost-savings.

First, I'll state the obvious. With a faster, more reliable Wi-Fi network in place, the IT department won't use as many resources responding to helpdesk calls and chasing-down problems. That's savings #1.

Second, by adopting 802.11ac, IT can replace nearly all wired end-user connections with Wi-Fi. The reality is that desk phones, projectors and audio-video systems are giving way to softphones and UC apps like Microsoft Lync and streaming services like Apple TV.

By rightsizing networks, organizations can reduce wired connections and save big. How big? By some estimates, over 75% on the access infrastructure over a three-year period.

What Does It All Mean?

As you can see, 802.11ac isn't just a wayward seducer, but actually makes a very compelling case for change. And this is why early technology adopters like universities are giving in to the seven-year itch.

Now consider that device manufacturers are adopting 802.11ac much faster than they did during the transition to 802.11n. More than 25 million 802.11ac-capable HTC Ones and Samsung GALAXY S4s have already been sold. The four newest smartphones from Motorola are 802.11ac capable, as is the MacBook Air. More 802.11ac clients, means even greater overall benefits.

But fear not, we will always be left with a little piece of 802.11n – the 2.4-GHz part, which is not included in the 802.11ac standard. And given the wonders of modern technology, even 2.4 GHz gets some bandwidth augmentation, courtesy of the dominant chipset vendor applying the higher modulation back to 802.11n.

This higher modulation can offer more than 30% additional throughput from our old flame 802.11n for mobile devices with the new chipsets, and it can be deployed right alongside 802.11ac. So unlike our love life, Wi-Fi lets us keep our old flame, while allowing us to move on to greener pastures.