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802.11ac Wave 2 WiFi? MU-MIMO? An Explainer

802.11ac Wave 2 WiFi? MU-MIMO? An Explainer

Jay Brant • Oct 05, 2017 •

802.11ac Wave 2 is an important new wireless LAN standard that’s becoming more and more popular in the world of enterprise WiFi.

Now, before your eyes glaze over because we’re talking about technical standards, just give us a second to tell you why it’s so important. It only takes three steps:

  1. Workplace WiFi is essential
  2. There are more devices using WiFi than ever
  3. 11ac Wave 2 lets more devices get better WiFi

You don’t need to know any of the technical detail. Just remember this: 802.11ac Wave 2 is a massive improvement for offices where there are many devices connecting to the network. Massive.

On top of that, 802.11ac Wave 2 is a huge speed increase for the network. In fact, you can get Gigabit WiFi speed with Wave 2.

Network speed is more important than ever. Video traffic in particular, whether for streaming or teleconferencing, is a phenomenally resource-intensive process that puts a heavy load on your network. But video is also being relied upon more and more, and you can’t afford not to be able to support video. So you need to make allowances for more video traffic on the network.

Hence the importance of 802.1ac Wave 2 WiFi.

Have we convinced you that it’s worth sticking around for a bit more depth about 802.11ac Wave 2 WiFi?

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What Is 802.11ac Wave 2 WiFi?

802.11ac Wave 2 is an official standard from the WiFi Alliance.

It improves on the 802.11ac Wave 1 by adding multi-user capabilities, a higher throughput rate, more spatial streams, and improved channel width.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “Why Wave 2?”

The reason in a nutshell is that the 802.11ac standard is a very big step forward over previous WiFi standards. The WiFi Alliance and the IEEE wanted to let manufacturers and businesses start taking advantage of 802.11ac without having to wait for the whole standard to be set. So they released the standard in stages.

And in case you’re wondering, “Is there another Wave 3 coming?” No, there isn’t. Wave 2 is it for 802.11ac.

The biggest change from Wave 1 and Wave 2 is how the standard adapts to multi-user environments. It’s time for MU-MIMO.


MU-MIMO: Multi-User Heaven

MU-MIMO stands for “multi-user multiple input multiple output.” For high-density environments like offices where there are a lot of network-connected devices, MU-MIMO is a lifesaver.

Previously, a WiFi router or access point could only connect one device at a time. That is, it would connect multiple devices by prioritizing them in sequence and switching between them. While the router could shift very rapidly between devices so it might have seemed like multiple devices were connected simultaneously, in fact they weren’t.

A MU-MIMO router or access point, however, can define sections of the bandwidth to connect multiple devices at once. Rather than one device taking up all the bandwidth, then the next, and so on, MU-MIMO lets multiple devices take up an appropriate portion of the bandwidth at the same time.

In our world with increasing numbers of computers, smartphones, tablets, IoT devices, and more all jockeying for network connectivity, you can see why MU-MIMO could lead to a great improvement in workplace WiFi. (Note that the connected device also has to support MU-MIMO to take advantage of it.)

Connecting multiple devices is nice, but what’s even nicer is that the network speed is also improved.

Gigabit WiFi: Incredible Speed

802.11ac Wave 2 opens up the potential for Gigabit WiFi speed. And even if you don’t get quite connectivity quite that fast, you’ll still get a major speed-bump.

First, though, a couple of terms:

  • PHY Rate (physical layer rate) refers to the speed at which a device communicates with an access point
  • Throughput is the average speed that data is transferred between device and access point

You can think of it as the difference between potential and actual experience. With wireless routers and access points, throughput tends to be 50% or more less than the PHY rate, because of the messiness of real-world data transfer.

With Wave 1, you could potentially could get Gigabit-plus throughput. Its PHY rate is defined at 1.3 Gbps, which is over the Gigabit threshold. In the real world, however, you basically never got speeds that fast.

Wave 2 has a much improved defined PHY rate of 2.34 to 3.47 Gbps, which means a potential Gigabit connection is much more likely. And even if you don’t achieve Gigabit speeds, you’re still going to get a noticeable bump in performance.

Video traffic is the primary driver for increased network speeds. As the amount of video traffic increases, as the quality of the video gets better, and as the number of video use-cases expands, your network is going to be put under a bigger and bigger load.

802.11ac Wave 2 future-proofs your network.


Spatial Streams & Channel Width

The other two improvements with 802.11ac Wave 2 have to do with spatial streams and channel width.

Wave 2 gives you an extra spatial stream: 4 instead of 3. Think of spatial streams as being something like different FM radio stations for your router. Increasing the number of spatial streams improves performance by better serving multiple device situations.

Finally, Wave 2 improves channel width from 80 MHz to 160 MHz. Think of a water pipe. Now think of one with a circumference that’s twice as big. Then think of how much more water can flow through the bigger pipe. Yep.

As we said, 802.11ac Wave 2 is a major improvement!

802.11ac Wave 2 Access Points

Hopefully we’ve convinced you that 802.11ac Wave 2 WiFi is something that would improve your business’s wireless network. And you might be wondering how you can get it in your office. 802.11ac Wave 2 access points are still quite new to the market. But we’re IP business technology experts, so we have you covered.

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