What is 802.11ac Wi-Fi?

A new type of Wi-Fi is coming. 802.11ac promises incredible data transfer speeds and faster internet for every wireless device, should you have the broadband package to provide it.

Think of it like 4G but for you home. 802.11ac is the cutting edge of wireless connectivity and will bring with it data speeds on hardware similar to that which you would get if you were connected with a cable but exactly what is 802.11ac?

What is Wi-Fi first of all?

Before we start on this explanation, we just need to clarify what Wi-Fi itself actually is. It's essentially a means for you to transfer data cable-free from computer to the internet and vice versa. It can also be used to send information between devices on a network.

A Wi-Fi network is something you create at home which you can connect any Wi-Fi enabled device to. That device can then browse the internet without the need for a cable being attached to your laptop, tablet, phone or whatever else.

At the moment there are different standards of Wi-Fi that allow for larger amounts of data to be transferred and sometimes over greater distances as well. Most hardware is 802.11b/g which can carry up to 54Mb per second (not megabytes, but megabits) over a maximum of 38m indoors but we doubt that was measured in any thick-walled Victorian property in the UK. All the same, the speed means those with top broadband connections will hit bottlenecks when the network can’t carry anymore data.

More recent is the 802.11n type of Wi-Fi which is capable of transporting 150Mb at up to 70m. It allows you take advantage of all that fibre optic broadband speed you might have. Both the router and the device need to support n-type Wi-Fi in order for the speed to be possible. Devices and the router will switch between the various types so everything runs smoothly.

Ok understood … and 802.11ac?

We really don’t want to over complicate things here as Wi-Fi can be a virtual minefield of nasty technical terms. Things like 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands get thrown about all over the place but you don’t need to know what they mean, unless your planning on pumping out or receiving some weird and wonderful non-Wi-Fi related broadcasts on the same section of the spectrum from your home. Don't worry, you're not.

So, 802.11ac is like a speed boost on the 802.11n standard. Hardware such as tablets and laptops will be able to transfer up to 6.93Gb of data per second. How much data is that? A lot. You are looking at some very pacey transfers indeed. Say, for example, the next iPhone launches with the 802.11ac standard, then Wi-Fi sync from iTunes would mean you could push your whole music library in, most likely, well under a minute, if the handset could handle it. That's the theory, anyway.

So when can I get it?

802.11ac’s chips and partners were announced on 5 January by Broadcom. When 802.11n first made an appearance it was another seven years before it turned up in devices sat in your pocket. So, things like the Galaxy S II and iPhone 4 both use it, but they are some of the earlier mobile phones to take advantage of the speedier standard.

802.11ac is going to be just as lengthy a process as N-type routers took to arrive. Testing and actual hardware releases to market mean it wont be until around 2015 that it becomes a normal household standard.

Don’t forget that you are going to need both an AC-type router as well as a device in order to get the speed. If you have only one or the other, they will switch to the fastest type of network that exists on both pieces of hardware.

Does it cost me anything?

You won’t be able to upgrade a piece of hardware to the 802.11ac standard of Wi-Fi. The result of this is that either your broadband provider will give you the new faster router, or you will need to purchase one separately.

In this sense, it is going to cost you something, as is the likely extra price tab slapped on portables when they launch with the new faster Wi-Fi. The chips will make nice marketing fodder for those touting ‘fastest Wi-Fi available’ on their products. Essentially, it's a label on a box worth looking out for in three years time. Don't buy one without it.

Do I really need it?

Before you get worried about upgrading or not having the fastest possible device on the market, you need to ask yourself a few questions about the impact something like 802.11ac will have on your wireless experience. First up, is your broadband connection fast enough for it to be worth it?

Let's use a current day example to explain this. If you have Virgin Media’s 50Mbps broadband, you are going to need an N-type router and N compatible devices in order to get the complete broadband speed wirelessly. Say, in a few years time, you get even faster internet at home, then you might need to upgrade to 802.11ac in order to enjoy the most of your broadband speed.

Right now, however, you really don’t need 802.11ac and even if you did, you can’t get it. So there. 

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