Should I upgrade to the new 802.11ac wireless access points? Some considerations to think about.

This year Pakedge introduced its 802.11ac based wireless access point (WAP) lines – the WK series and the WX series. The WK series is designed for residential and light commercial use, while the WX is designed for commercial use.

A common refrain we hear from our customers and resellers is “Should I upgrade from 802.11n to 802.11ac?” This blog will provide you with some things to consider as you make this decision.

What is the current wireless technology being replaced?
In terms of performance, there is a big difference between 3rd generation (802.11g), 4th generation (802.11n) and 5th generation (802.11ac).

  • 802.11g or “G” – There is no compelling reason not to upgrade from G technology. This technology is over 10 years old and is insufficient for many of today’s applications and services for a variety of reasons, including:
    1. It has a maximum theoretical speed of 54 Mbps and in real world situations, you will get less than half that. Many people have Internet services faster than G’s wireless transmission speeds.
    2. Multiple users streaming video will max out its capacity.
    3. It only operates on the congested 2.4 GHz band and is susceptible to interference, especially in an urban multi-tenant office environment or a multi-dwelling residential building.
  • 802.11n Single Band (2.4 GHz) or Single Band N – Unless there are very specific single purpose applications or that the local environment is interference free, there is no reason not to upgrade from Single Band N. Its main shortcoming is that it only operates on the congested 2.4 GHz band, and is subject to interference and degraded device performance, especially for those that are streaming high bandwidth and low latency content.
  • 802.11n Dual Band (2.4 and 5 GHz) – The decision to upgrade depends on the applications. The biggest difference between AC and dual band N lies in the performance and capacity of the 5 GHz band. AC is 5 times faster than its N counterpart, while supporting twice as many client devices (per WAP), and having a longer usable range (i.e. the coverage profile stays flatter longer before dropping off at the edge of coverage, thus providing you with higher throughput further out than N before dropping off). Consider upgrading if these are important to you.

Are you in a high interference environment?
The number one factor affecting wireless performance is interference. Most of the interference occurs in the 2.4 GHz band because many devices still use it. Legacy devices, still in service today, only operate in this band while other newer devices choose to operate in this band because of its longer range. In addition, the 2.4 GHz band has only 11 channels, of which 3 (channels 1, 6 and 11) do not overlap.

If you live and work in an dense urban area, you are in a high interference environment. This is easily verified by performing a site survey using a tool like inSSIDer or a built in application within your WAP (for example, you can use the site survey function in our W6 and W7 WAPS). In addition to interference sources within your own network, it is likely you have as much interference from your neighbors as well.

If your environment does not have a lot of interference today, there is a strong possibility that will change in the future as the 2.4 GHz band is only going to get crowded. Your microwave, cordless phones and any wireless cameras/monitors are potential sources of interference. In addition, many of the automation devices (wi-fi enabled and Zigbee enabled shades, thermostats, and appliances) operate on the 2.4 GHz band. As more and more of these IOT or connected devices become mainstream, and you or your neighbors buy and use them, the limitations of the 2.4 GHz band on performance will become clear.

We recommend upgrading to AC if:

  • You live and work in a high interference environment
  • You use a lot of high bandwidth low latency applications (e.g. streaming video, VOIP telephone service)
  • You have a large number of 5 GHz compatible devices that you use to consume high bandwidth, low latency applications
  • You wish to futureproof your network against a local RF environment that is likely to get more congested in the near future

What types of applications are you running?
The applications you use will be a major consideration in the upgrade decision process. Are you using your network to stream video? Are you using it to stream audio, to do internet surfing (reading), to print or data transfer? To do VOIP?

Some applications are sensitive to performance. High bandwidth/low latency applications, like HD/UHD video streaming, high resolution audio, VOIP, videoconferencing or AVB applications, require high performance whereas data transfer or print applications don’t have the same performance requirements. Even if you don’t use a lot of high bandwidth, low latency applications today, you may do so in the future as more and more content is being delivered in the form of video.

For these high performance applications, you want to be on the uncongested 5 GHz band whenever possible. If you use this band frequently, the decision to upgrade is based on your requirements. As stated previously, AC is 5 times faster than its N counterpart, while supporting twice as many client devices (per WAP), and having a longer usable range.

We recommend upgrading to AC if:

  • You use a lot of high bandwidth low latency applications (e.g. streaming video, VOIP telephone service) on the 5 GHz band
  • You have a large number of 5 GHz compatible devices that you use to consume high bandwidth, low latency applications
  • You wish to futureproof and scale your network against growth, both in the number of devices supported, as well as usage of high bandwidth, low latency applications
  • You want to maintain 5 GHz performance at long distances without having to buy additional N access points to make up for the performance coverage gap

What types of devices are in the network?
If you have a lot of 5 GHz compatible devices, they should always operate in that band instead of the 2.4 GHz band. This allows them to operate in the uncongested band, while freeing the 2.4 GHz band for the 2.4 GHz only devices and reduces performance robbing devices from the spectrum.

If you have a large number of 5 GHz devices, then the decision to upgrade is based on the applications you run. Coming from G or N single band, you should upgrade to N dual band or AC. Specifically, we recommend upgrading to AC if:

  • You use a lot of high bandwidth low latency applications (e.g. streaming video, VOIP telephone service) on the 5 GHz band
  • You have a large number of 5 GHz compatible devices that you use to consume high bandwidth, low latency applications
  • You wish to futureproof and scale your network against growth, both in the number of devices supported, as well as usage of high bandwidth, low latency applications
  • You want to maintain 5 GHz performance at long distances without having to buy additional N access points to make up for the performance coverage gap

What is your current ISP service?
Many users still have low speed service (10 – 25 Mbps) with no plans to upgrade. However, as more and more high speed Internet services are rolled out, many of the existing service plans are being upgraded for free. For example, Comcast has been upgrading its customers with 25 Mbps service to 50 Mbps, and some 50 Mbps service to 100 Mbps service. Even if you are at 25 Mbps today, you will find that many service providers are now routinely upgrading its customers to the next higher speed level at no charge (as long as their infrastructure can support it).

Consider upgrading to AC is this is happening in your local service area, or if high speed services are coming in the near future and you utilize a lot of cloud based streaming services.

all-AC

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