What you need to know about 802.11ac Wi-Fi

Yardena Arar

The Wave 2 update for the relatively new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard promises even faster and more efficient networks.

Here’s what to expect — and why you might want to wait a bit before purchasing that new 802.11ac router.

The move to the newest Wi-Fi standard — 802.11ac — has been under way for a couple of years now. As with each new generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11ac offers faster connections for all devices that support it. But the newest technology built into 802.11ac should give wireless networks a significant speed boost — especially in today’s typical networking environment of multiple smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes, laptops, printers, and other devices — all competing for time on the router.

Enhanced versions of new Wi-Fi standards are relatively common phenomena. You might recall all those Turbo-G and pre-802.11n products that appeared during the long 802.11n incubation period. But the improvements were always proprietary; typically, the devices that could actually use the enhancements all had to come from the same vendor.

That shouldn’t be the case for the upcoming 802.11ac Wave 2 products. Wave 2 isn’t a proprietary enhancement developed by one Wi-Fi vendor; instead, it’s a set of optional components in the final 802.11ac specifications, ratified by the IEEE standards organization just this past January (more info).

With every new amendment of the 802.11 standard, products are typically released long before the IEEE gives its final blessing. That’s partially the case with 802.11ac: products based on the new Wi-Fi standard have been shipping for more than two years. But those products are based on the mandatory component of the 802.11ac standard (sometimes referred to as Wave 1). Wave 2, again, is a set of optional features, and those products are still to come.

Whereas the IEEE develops and ratifies Wi-Fi standards, an industry trade group — the Wi-Fi Alliance — uses certification programs to promote device interoperability. Essentially, it polices how vendors implement the standards. The Wi-Fi Alliance is already certifying the first generation of 802.11ac devices, and it’s now working on amending that certification program to add Wave 2 features. However, they haven’t disclosed exactly which Wave 2 enhancements will be added to the certification program or when they expect to begin certifying using the amended specs. That said, the Wi-Fi Alliance program should ensure that all certified 802.11ac devices work together — but Wave 2 products should work somewhat faster (more on that below).

Defining the new enhanced 802.11ac standard

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Yardena Arar

About Yardena Arar

Yardena Arar has written about technology for the New York Times, the Canadian Press, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Daily News. She was an editor at PC World magazine from 1996 to 2009, and is now a PC World contributing editor.