The Wi-Fi Alliance is finally kicking off a certification program for routers, adapters, and other wireless networking gear based on the IEEE 802.11ac draft standard. The organization has a strong track record when it comes to ensuring that networking products will be interoperable even when the standards they’re based on have yet to be finalized, so this is a positive development.
As it did with the 802.11n wireless networking standard, the IEEE is taking its sweet time to ratify the 802.11ac standard. In fact, the responsible working group isn’t expected to finish its work until November, and final ratification isn’t expected until February 2014. That lengthy timeline hasn’t stopped manufacturers from shipping 802.11ac gear, of course; products based on the draft standard have been on store shelves since August 2012. But buyers haven’t had any assurances that those products will work together.
So why is the certification program launching now? “We want to ensure that the standard is substantially mature,” said Wi-Fi Alliance senior marketing manager Kevin Robinson in an embargoed interview last week. “There is work that we have to go through to ensure interoperability, and [we’re] fielding a test bed to certify that.”
The Wi-Fi Alliance launched a similar certification program back in 2007 for networking equipment based on the draft 802.11n standard. Unlike that effort, however, the 802.11ac certification program will not acknowledge the standard’s draft status and is being described as simply “Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ ac.”
“The Wi-Fi Alliance has a long track record of certifying products ahead of IEEE ratification,” said Robinson. “With the Wi-Fi Certified N program, we found that in addition to the backward interoperability [with products based on the 802.11b and g standards], final products were backward-compatible with draft products. The core set of features remained unchanged. The Wi-Fi Certified AC program will preserve interoperability with every certified product from the past ten years.” Robinson also said he expects that most manufacturers that shipped 802.11ac products prior to the certification program will submit their products for certification after the fact.
To gain the Alliance’s imprimatur, 802.11ac devices are expected to be dual-band, meaning that they can operate on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. If such a device can’t connect at 5GHz using the 802.11ac protocol, it will attempt to drop back to 2.4GHz and use the older 802.11n protocol (or even 802.11b or 802.11g, if necessary). Since dual-band routers are capable of operating networks on both frequencies simultaneously, consumers will be able to use the 2.4GHz band for basic needs and preserve bandwidth on the less-crowded 5GHz band for media streaming and other high-performance applications.
PCWorld tested five of the first 802.11ac routers last September. We were generally impressed with the performance then, but we don’t know at this time whether those products will be certified after the fact. The Wi-Fi Alliance did provide a list of 802.11ac components that will be the first to receive 802.11ac certification. These devices also form the test suite for the certification program as a whole:
Broadcom BCM4706 5G WiFi Communications Processor
Broadcom BCM4360 5G WiFi Single Chip MAC/PHY/Radio
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260
Marvell Avastar 88W8897 AP Reference Design
Marvell Avastar 88W8897 STA Reference Design
Mediatek Dual Band 802.11ac Reference Access Point
Michael is TechHive's lead editor and covers the smart home and home entertainment markets. He built his own smart home in 2007, which he uses as a real-world test lab when reviewing new products. Michael also reviews routers and networking products for TechHive and PCWorld.