What is AC Wi-Fi? How fast is 802.11ac Wi-Fi?

What is AC (802.11ac) Wi-Fi?

802.11ac is a new standard of Wi-Fi that is quickly becoming available with new devices. The previous standard, that most new devices are currently using, is 802.11n. Wireless “N” has a typical transfer rate of about 100 Mbps, while 802.11ac increases the current rate by more than 4X to 450 Mbps (practical, single antenna limit).

AC Wi-Fi also introduces several amazing new features:

  • It operates on the 5 GHz frequency instead of the 2.4 GHz frequency. Since many other devices and appliances operate on 2.4 GHz, operating in the 5 GHz band will reduce interference with these other devices. I relay music from my phone to my Bluetooth sound system (Bluetooth operates on 2.4 GHz) and I have N Wi-Fi, so I get significant interference whenever I am downloading something. 802.11ac Wi-Fi will prevent this interference.
  • Beamforming — allows the router to identify the locations of devices and intensify the wireless signals in those directions (see image below). With beamforming, AC Wi-Fi can maintain a good range — otherwise lost due to the nature of the 5 GHz frequency (it doesn’t penetrate walls as easily).
  • It will accommodate more devices connected to the same router.

AC Wi-Fi Beamforming

So how fast is 802.11ac?

450 Mbps is not the theoretical maximum transfer rate for ac, but rather a practical rate that users can actually expect outside of a laboratory. This works out to over 50 MB per second, or the rough equivalent of downloading 16 songs every second (assuming a 3MB mp3 song size).

Non-techies need not worry about specific transfer speeds, just understand that your internet downloads can finish up to 4 times faster with AC Wi-Fi. Of course, users will always be restricted by the speed of the internet actually reaching their house. My internet package, for example, only grants me speeds up to 10 Mbps, or 1.25 MB per second (yes, I know, that’s terrible but faster packages quickly get much more expensive!). That means that AC Wi-Fi is technically overkill for any downloads over the internet for me, and likely many others. However, users without blisteringly fast home internet can still benefit from AC Wi-Fi if they transfer or stream large files over their home network.

Should I worry about AC Wi-Fi right now?

No, probably not. For the most part, AC Wi-Fi may still be overkill. With a fast home internet connection and a good Wireless N router and compatible devices, you probably aren’t really in need of it. However, there are several scenarios where AC is useful today:

  • If you are like me and use Bluetooth devices around your home while simultaneously downloading heavily, AC should eliminate any interference you are currently experiencing.
  • If you are buying new devices that you plan to keep around for a long time (i.e. a desktop or laptop), it may be a good idea to pick up an AC-compatible device so you don’t get left behind, since AC will become the new standard — though this is not likely to happen for another year or two at least.

Are you looking forward to AC Wi-Fi? Do you find your current wireless setup to be sufficient? Leave your responses in the comments below. Continue on to learn more about wireless standards.

Learn More About Wireless Standards

802.11 is the name of the first Wi-Fi standard that was created back in 1997 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Since that time, each new iteration has added a letter to denote the change to the standard (speed, features etc.).  The order is as follows: 801.11, a/b, g, n and now, ac.

Below is a summary of the major advancements made with the 802.11 standard:

  • 802.11 — up to 2 Mbps, 2.4 GHz, can interfere with other appliances
  • 802.11b — up to 11 Mbps, 2.4 GHz, can interfere with other appliances
  • 802.11a — up to 54 Mbps, 5 GHz, less interference, reduced range, lower penetration
  • 802.11g — up to 54 Mbps, 2.4 GHz, can interfere with other appliances
  • 802.11n — up to 100 Mbps, 2.4 or 5 GHz, can interfere with other appliances
  • 802.11ac — up to 450 Mbps, 5 GHz, less interference, beamforming, reduced range, lower penetration

Learn more about 802.11 Wi-Fi  standards.

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