Wireless hotspots that can deliver hundreds of megabits per second in real-world bandwidth will become more common as operators increase their investments in Wi-Fi networks.
Not much has been announced, but a range of fixed, cable and mobile operators have already started or are planning upgrades to 802.11ac, the fastest Wi-Fi technology yet, according to market research company IHS. By this time next year a noticeable number of hotspots will use it, said research director Richard Webb, who is currently conducting a survey to pinpoint operator plans. Overall operator spending on Wi-Fi networks in 2015 is expected to increase by 88 percent year-on-year.
Networks based on 802.11ac are faster thanks to features such as MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) and beamforming. The former uses multiple antennas at the same time to increase data speeds, while beamforming aims the signal at the user to improve performance.
British Telecom and Boingo Wireless have already started to upgrade. There is a drive towards 802.11ac as public venues upgrade and get more serious about the role of Wi-Fi in their networks, according to Boingo. It has upgraded hotspots at airports, while BT has focused on hotels. For example, London hotels Every Piccadilly and Amba Charing Cross offer expected speeds of 196Mbps and 175Mbps using BT technology, according to Hotelwifitest.com.
The actual speeds that users get depend on a number of factors, including distance to the access point, the number of users on the network, and the number of antennas in their smartphone, tablet or laptop.
802.11ac: Not just about higher speeds
The so-called Wave 2 of the technology adds a feature called multiuser-MIMO, which will help remove bottlenecks by allowing networks to transmit data to many users simultaneously instead of just one at a time. Public hotspots have the most to gain from using MU-MIMO, because they handle more users than home networks and a majority of enterprise WLANs. However, for MU-MIMO to work, networks as well as clients have to be upgraded.
Ruckus Wireless is seeing growing interest for 802.11ac. It was, along with Cisco Systems and Huawei Technologies, one of the biggest vendors of carrier Wi-Fi equipment last year, according to IHS. Some mobile operators and cable operators have already certified its newer equipment for deployment, while others are still in the process of doing that, Ruckus said.
Due to engineering and manufacturing efficiencies, Ruckus has been able to launch access points at comparable, or even lower, prices than the 802.11n products that preceded them, the company said. Recently, chip maker Broadcom launched a new SoC (system-on-a-chip) that aims to bring down the cost of 802.11ac equipment further. Products based on the chipset are expected to arrive during the second half of the year.
There is no single hotbed where 802.11ac will gain a head start over other countries or regions—IHS survey shows it will happen everywhere, according to research director Webb. North America has typically been an early adopter of new Wi-Fi standards, but there are strong drivers for 802.11ac everywhere, he said.