WiFi Evolved

Wireless technologies evolve faster than the virus responsible for the common cold—or at least it seems that way.  When I started my career in wireless networking (about 10 years ago), 802.11a was king of the hill, cream of the crop, a number one!  But since, this protocol has been displaced by:

  • 802.11n
  • 802.11ac-Wave1
  • 802.11ac-Wave2

Not to mention all of these protocols are primed to be displaced by 802.11ax once ratified in about two years.  Wireless networking is one of the most rapidly evolving technologies—and this can cause dilemmas for network administrators.  Which protocol should I deploy in my network? What is the lifespan of the protocol? Will I see benefits for these protocols?  These are some valid questions, so let me shed some light.

For today’s wireless network, 802.11ac-Wave1 should be deployed at a minimum.  Early last year, over 65% of all mobile clients shipped were manufactured with an 802.11ac-Wave1 capable chipset.  The adoption rate for 802.11ac-Wave1 is accelerating and you can expect to see around 75-80% adoption of this protocol this year by manufacturers.  Therefore, you can expect clients supporting this protocol taking the majority of you network usage over the next few years—and should see the benefits readily.  Now you may be asking, what about 802.11ac-Wave2 or 802.11ax?

Let’s evaluate the easy one first, 802.11ax.  This standard is not a standard—802.11ax has not been officially ratified by IEEE and isn’t expected to be ratified for another two years or so.  Additionally, there aren’t any devices that support 802.11ax.

Now what about 802.11ac-Wave2?  This protocol improves upon 802.11ac-Wave1 with additional features/support for increased throughput.  This protocol is starting to eat away at 802.11ac-Wave1’s market share, but is still far behind.  So it is up to you as the administrator of the network, to weigh the pros and cons of which protocol you want your network to support.  As with most networking decisions, it is a matter of tradeoff between features and cost.  For example, 802.11ac-Wave2 clients aren’t expected to make up 50% of a wireless network until 4-5 years from now.  Meaning you won’t see significant gains in network throughput for a while. However, the network would be future ready when 802.11ac-Wave2 is widely used, but at a higher cost than a Wave1 network.

Wireless technologies mutate quickly, but unlike the common cold, there is a cure – knowledge!  If you know the benefits of the protocols and how pervasive they are (or expected to be) in your network, then you can make an informed decision—which protocol is best for your network.


Alex Zeltmann is an ABS veteran and a rockstar Infrastructure Engineering Manager. With over 10 years of experience in networking technology, he leads ABS’ team of implementation engineers as they integrate the latest technologies for ABS clients.