Update on recent WiFi enhancements and NetPilot’s use of the latest 802.11n and 802.11ac standards.

Back in 1997 the first 802.11 standards were emerging. Those of us slightly older IT folks will remember, certainly what seemed to me at the time, a confusing cascade of ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘g’ variants in the period between 1999 and 2003.

In the next ten years only one notable event occurred – that being the introduction of what most of us use today – 802.11n making all the others pretty much obsolete. Depending on distances and the equipment in use, data rates are typically anything  up to 300Mbps are possible, which is the case with NetPilot equipment.  Like most of the previous standards, 802.11n utilises the frequency in the 2.4 GHz spectrum – today a very crowded space. The standard allowed use of the 5 GHz spectrum as well, which is far less susceptible to interference.

The 802.11n standard also allowed the use of twice the bandwidth. Earlier 802.11 variants and first implementations of 802.11n used 20 or 22 MHz of bandwidth (think of it as the width of the data pipe!).

The good news is that manufacturers of 802.11n WiFi equipment are finally making use of the less crowded 5GHz spectrum and making use of 40Mhz of bandwidth – so notionally twice the size of the data pipe (and this can be exploited even further still).

NetPilot have in fact been shipping hardware with these improved 802.11n capabilities incorporated in SoHoBlue units for some six or seven months. Obviously your devices connecting to the SoHoBlue need to be compatible to exploit this extra speed potential. So what might you expect in terms of increased performance? With all the variables of distance, equipment types and PC performance etc., it seems that in practical terms (with the aforementioned taken as a caveat) in the real world you do seem to get about twice the performance compared to older ‘n’ implementations.

Just like buses (I’m told by city dwellers who have these services) we have not just one new Wi-Fi enhancement but two! The very latest 802.11ac standards were in fact introduced some 2 years ago but we are only now seeing a reasonable cross-section of manufacturers implementing ‘ac’ not just for laptops but in the latest smartphones (e.g. Samsung Galaxy S5) and latest tablets.

Again to support the latest WiFi standards, NetPilot will be introducing 802.11ac options for the SoHoBlue range in the near future. So in detail what’s new with ‘ac’ and can I have yet more speed please? The short answer to the latter part of the question is yes – you could get at least yet another doubling of speed for reasons explained below.

802.11ac is also using the 5 GHz spectrum and again they have doubled the size of the bandwidth data pipe to 80 MHz. The standard does allow to double up yet again to 160 MHz (but no manufacturer is shipping equipment capable of using this latter figure – yet).

While the clever engineers were at it, they decided to be even smarter at how they encode or modulate down the data pipe. They have introduced something called 256-QAM which is more efficient than the older 64-QAM employed by the old ‘n’ standard. The snag is that signal conditions have to be very good to exploit the new method. If they deteriorate then both ends will attempt to revert to the older 64-QAM.

Other enhancements concern the antennas (internal or external) used by WiFi equipment. In fact 802.11n saw the introduction of multiple antennas with something called MIMO (Multiple-Input and Multiple-Output). MIMO technology offers significant increases in data throughput and link range without using additional bandwidth or increased transmit power. It achieves this goal by spreading the same total transmit power over the antennas in an array that improves efficiency  i.e. more bits per second per hertz of bandwidth data pipe). Each Antenna can have its own data streams. So the larger the antenna array the more data that can be simultaneously transmitted/received. The new ‘ac’ standard allows for 8 MIMO streams compared to the older ‘n’ standard defining 4 MIMO streams as the maximum.

Finally of note, is another ‘ac’ function known as ‘beamforming’. This is to do with optimising and improving signal strength over multiple antennas. It was an optional extra in 802.11n but was not well defined so most manufacturers did not bother. The new 802.11ac has unfortunately two variants of beamforming so whether it proves useful in the real world with a variety of manufacturers equipment remains to be seen. Its main claim to fame is improving performance over longer distances.

So in summary NetPilot will have SoHoBlue units using all the new WiFi standards in the near future.

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