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How to ride Wave 2 for faster network speeds

The 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless standard is entering enterprise wireless networks. Computer Weekly looks at how it works and how best to deploy it

It might be easy to assume that 802.11ac Wave 2 standard wireless devices only offer faster wireless connectivity, but that would be an over-simplification.

This new generation of wireless technology has huge implications and potential benefits, especially for companies with a large data footprint.

The Wave 2 standard is an addendum to the original 802.11ac wireless specification. It incorporates new technology to increase the theoretical maximum data transfer rates used by wireless networks, allowing the transmission of data at faster speeds over internal networks, and enabling multiple users to use the wireless network at the same time.

Officially launched in 2016 by the Wi-Fi Alliance, commercial Wave 2 devices are finally making their way to market. Companies may be tempted to immediately invest in this new technology, but careful consideration should be given before committing to such an investment, to ensure maximum benefit.

Assess existing infrastructure

Before any Wave 2 devices are incorporated into a network, companies should survey their existing core network infrastructure and assess whether it is capable of delivering the high speeds that Wave 2 devices allow.

One of the principal advantages of the Wave 2 standard is that it finally allows for gigabit wireless transfer rates. Although wired connections were offering increasingly higher speeds, wireless devices were being left behind – until now.

In ideal conditions, Wave 1 devices potentially offer a physical layer rate of 1.3Gbps. But because businesses rarely operate in ideal conditions, the actual transfer rate was often 50% of this. With Wave 2 devices, which potentially offer a physical layer rate of 2.34Gbps, even assuming a 50% throughput rate, this still means that data would be transmitted at more than 1Gbps over the network.

Another advantage of Wave 2 technology is that it supports multi-user multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO). This means the devices allow many users to operate from a single Wave 2 access point, without the delay from each device taking its turn. This parallel operation, with datasets being sent in packets concurrently, allows for a significant improvement in efficiency.

“MU-MIMO means all four antennas can speak to many devices, and that essentially means that a single Wave 2 device acts as multiple Wave 1 devices,” says Craig Kirby, a technical engineer at D-Link. “It is like having a couple of access points in one.”

MU-MIMO allows more devices to be added to the network, with Wave 2 access points allowing up to four devices to be connected at any one time. With the growing number of employees using smartphones for work use, as well as the number of tablets and other smart devices, increased accessibility for all these devices will be a necessity. You could say that Wave 2 devices are laying the foundations upon which the internet of things (IoT) could be fully realised.

The Wave 2 standard also offers increased channel widths. Wave 1 allowed for 20MHz, 40MHz and 80MHz channel widths, but Wave 2 can accommodate up to 160MHz. Channel width determines how broad the signal is for transferring data: the wider the signal, the more data can pass through.

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The more routers there are, the more congested the traffic becomes, but increasing the channel width increases the speed and throughput of a wireless broadcast. In theory, the more channels the better, but not if those channels are crowded with noise and interference. In crowded areas with a lot of frequency noise and interference, a single channel will be more stable.

Greater channel width allows for greater speed and faster transfer rates; but, again, this does not perform well in crowded environments. The optimal channel widths should be determined via network infrastructure surveys, which should also assess the operating environments for the network.

A further benefit of Wave 2 is that it provides increased flexibility by introducing a fourth spatial stream. As the Wi-Fi Alliance says: “Device speeds are proportional to the number of spatial streams.”

The more spatial streams that are available, the better the device’s performance will be. “As you are introducing a fourth spatial stream with Wave 2, this means you could have an 88MHz and a 160MHz broadcast at the same time,” says Kirby.

Unless the existing network infrastructure has been installed recently, it is highly unlikely to be capable of operating at the increased speeds offered by Wave 2. In such instances, devices would be able to wirelessly connect with each other using the increased speeds that Wave 2 allows and using the Wave 2 standard access point, but any attempt to connect beyond the Wave 2-enabled network would drop to the core network’s normal transfer speed.

If higher internal data transfer speeds were all a company required, then installing Wave 2 over an older network would suffice. This would allow internal devices to connect internally at higher speeds within the wireless network.

Wave 2 devices will also be backwards compatible, in that they will still be able to connect to previous 802.11 devices, although in that case they would operate at the speed and functionality of the older technology. MU-MIMO will only operate between other Wave 2-enabled devices or access points, and the data transmission will revert to typical single-user transfer rates when encountering previous-generation devices.

A network infrastructure survey should review not only the existing network cabling and access points, but also the maximum local internet speeds offered by the internet service provider (ISP). Naturally, upgrading core network infrastructure is a significant investment, so care must be taken when choosing how and when to upgrade.

When considering upgrading to Wave 2 devices, companies should not just consider their existing network and current network usage, but also how they expect to develop in the next five years. An installation of new wireless devices might not be fit for purpose within 18 months if a company’s development strategy has not been considered.

Companies that benefit most from Wave 2 standard devices will be those that have a large data footprint and rely on large amounts of data being transferred, as well as those that depend on high transfer rates. A prime example of the advantage of the Wave 2 standard is that it allows the image feeds from CCTV cameras to be transmitted to a central server with increased frame-rate, image quality and resolution, due to improved bandwidth and transfer speeds.

Small increase in cost

Wave 2 devices themselves are only slightly more expensive – commonly 10% more than the older, Wave 1 standard, model. This is a small increase in cost for potentially double the data transfer rates. Also, although the cost per unit may be slightly higher, a survey may find that fewer access points are required, reducing the overall cost. Ultimately, the cost of updating a network to Wave 2 will depend on how much of the core infrastructure needs to be upgraded.

Given the increased data transfer speeds, companies that have a large data footprint, such as those that offer online services, should give serious consideration to upgrading their wireless network to the Wave 2 standard.

However, it is not just companies that will benefit from Wave 2’s advantages, but schools, colleges and universities, too. More and more academic institutions are using wireless devices, because of the increasing number of educational tools available online.

“Wave 2 enables workforces to connect more and work faster,” says Paul Routledge, D-Link’s country manager for the UK and Ireland. “If organisations that are dependent on speed of access to information do not upgrade to Wave 2, there is a real danger they could be left behind.”

Wave 2 standard wireless technology could provide huge benefits for organisations that rely on high data transfer speeds. However, the installation and implementation of this technology within their existing core network infrastructure would have to be fully considered, with a thorough network infrastructure survey identifying elements that need to be upgraded to allow Wave 2 to operate at its full capacity.

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