It seems like every aspect of the technology industry is forging ahead at full speed, with new features and new standards constantly being developed and pushed to the market. With the continuing rise of the mobile worker and the constant connectivity needs that result, CIOs need to keep an eye on what’s going on in the wireless industry. Two emerging wireless standards should on the CIO’s radar, but for different reasons.
802.11ac brings the speed, but not for you (yet)
It seems like just yesterday that organizations were upgrading their aging wireless networks to support the speedy 802.11n standard, which provides wireless networking speed with the ability to straddle the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. This band straddling feature gave 802.11n networks the best of both worlds: Support for the ubiquity of 2.4 GHz devices as well as the ability to operate in the relatively uncluttered 5 GHz band. As a result, 802.11n-based networks can achieve speeds into the hundreds of megabits per second.
However, as home users jumped on the wireless-N bandwagon and started deploying ever more bandwidth-hungry devices into their homes, even 802.11n isn’t proving to be a long-term solution. With TVs and media players wanting to stream high definition content between devices, the wireless industry has had to maintain the pace. The result: 802.11ac.
802.11ac-based wireless networks can theoretically operate at speeds in excess of 1 Gb/s, making the new wireless standard—which is still under development—a true replacement technology for wired networks in some cases. 802.11ac operates solely in the 5 GHz band but is fully backward compatible with 802.11b/g/n networks, all which operate in 2.4 GHz on ac-compatible gear.
In fact, some SOHO vendors are already selling routers equipped with chipsets that provide 802.11ac speeds. That's where you come in. As has long been the case, it’s likely that employees will try to bring ac gear into the workplace to get additional speed from the wireless network. If you’re running a dual-band wireless-N network, this could be bad news, particularly if the gear that is deployed uses particularly wide channels. In such cases, the ac gear could simply drown out the N equipment that you’ve spent so much time tuning and getting fully operational.
Further, at present, 802.11ac is meant to solve a consumer problem, not an enterprise one. 802.11n is more than sufficient for most common business needs. As time goes on, and vendors refine their ac practices, 802.11ac will more than likely make its way into the enterprise, but for now, it’s a standard to keep on your radar but avoid deploying.
802.11u and you
It’s a fact that cellular networks can get clogged and become congested. As more people get mobile devices, the problem grows, with cellular vendors struggling to keep their backhaul links fast enough to support all of the traffic and their towers robust enough for an ever-growing number of connections.
At the same time, more and more organizations are deploying fast WiFi networks. You've probably see dozens of WiFI networks on a regular basis in hotels, at McDonalds, in Starbucks, and in many other locations.
802.11u, also known at HotSpot 2.0 or “carrier offload” is a standard under development that will attempt to bring to WiFi the seamless handoff and connectivity that users currently enjoy from cellular networks while concurrently offloading a lot of cellular traffic to WiFi networks.
802.11u requires changes at both the client and network levels, and companies are still working their way through the ramifications of such changes. In order to operate as intended, WiFi network connects need to be as seamless as cellular ones are. As you use your devices, you probably know that cellular connections generally just work as long as you’re in a covered area, while WiFi connections can take some effort. But, once configured, you’re able to simply reconnect to that WiFi network.
802.11u wants to bring that post-WiFi configuration experience to the masses. As you move between WiFi networks, the networks will be intelligent enough to know from where you came and, even if all of the networks are locked down tight, your credentials will be seamlessly passed and your connection handed off between them.
The implications for CIOs are twofold:
- In a perfect world, every network would participate, creating a seamless experience under which users simply traveled without worry about the network in use. Over time, as we see 802.11u deployed, we’ll start to see this vision come to life in small ways. Life will hopefully be easier for mobile workers.
- Organizational WiFi networks may be able to participate in an 802.11u-based world. I see this as most likely for organizations with a significant semi-open wireless presence, such as colleges and universities and the aforementioned businesses that provide free WiFI to their customers. As a CIO, if you have a network that could be of benefit to the movement, consider what 802.11u would do.
If you’d like to learn more about 802.11u, read this Cisco white paper.
Action Item: Although not something I would consider high priority, CIOs should keep 802.11u on their list of technologies to investigate in the coming years. Conversely, for the present, enterprise CIOs should be wary of consumer-grade 802.11ac gear making its way into the enterprise and, if considered 802.11ac enterprise gear, determine the potential negative impact on the existing 802.11n environment.