The Beacon

Five reasons why colleges are taking the 802.11ac plunge

Robert Fenstermacher

It’s said that after seven years in a relationship, malaise and discontent can seep in, causing the eye to wander to newer, more exotic objects of desire – it’s called the seven-year itch. As goes love, so goes Wi-Fi. We face this same predicament after seven long and fulfilling years with the 802.11n standard.

But is 802.11ac the one we’re meant to run off with, or just a distraction from a Wi-Fi standard that still meets our needs? If we take our cue from colleges and universities, the earliest adopters of Wi-Fi technology, it’s time for an upgrade.

Many detractors will say that 802.11ac hasn’t yet lived up to its potential, but technically the same could be said about current iterations of 802.11n access points. So instead, let’s look at the top five reasons why universities are flocking to this new standard in its current form, as certified by Wi-Fi Alliance.

Reason #1: More devices, more apps, more multimedia

As any campus IT administrator knows, students bring throngs of gadgetry with them to campus. And these devices behave in elusive ways.

They buffer massive amounts of multimedia and then go silent, stick to APs when they should roam, talk multicast to other personal devices on the network, and transmit low-priority background data at the same time as critical academic traffic. The only certainty of these devices is their uncertainty.

802.11ac can help in the following ways:

  • A wider pipe: 802.11ac stitches together more spectrum per client, allowing 80 MHz channel widths. Think about it this way: when a campus moves from 20 MHz to 80 MHz, it automatically receives 4.5X more speed.
  • Better modulation: 802.11ac improves modulation to 256 quadrature amplitude modulation, or QAM. In optimum environments, this provides an additional 33% increase in throughput over the 64-QAM used by 802.11n.
  • Higher performance APs: New purpose-built 802.11ac APs have faster processors and more memory, improving client performance in high-density environments by more than 20% compared to 802.11n or to 802.11ac APs built on 802.11n hardware. This performance boost exists even in networks that only have 802.11n clients.
  • More efficient use of the air: With 802.11ac, data is transmitted at a higher rate, meaning devices get off the channel faster, leaving air for other devices to transmit and receive.

Reason #2: Coverage

Universities need to provide Wi-Fi throughout large buildings and outdoor areas, making adequate RF coverage a must. 802.11ac has some tricks up its sleeve.

First, borrowing from the capacity discussion above, it’s all about rate vs. range. Even though the ability to throw a signal is nearly equivalent between 802.11n and 802.11ac, the new speeds (data rates) can provide twice the capacity at an equivalent range.

This means that users suffering through a slow rate in one coverage area would immediately enjoy faster speeds with 802.11ac.

Even better, now that Explicit Transmit Beamforming is a mandatory part of the 802.11ac standard, radios can focus signal on individual clients for a huge speed improvement. Aruba’s testing has shown that speeds can improve by over 30% per client (2 MCS index levels)!

Finally, purpose-built 802.11ac APs use the newest antenna designs and the full dimensions of the AP to increase wireless signals even further.

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The statements and opinions by each Wi-Fi Alliance member and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions or views of Wi-Fi Alliance or any other member. Wi-Fi Alliance is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information provided by any member in posting to or commenting on this blog. Concerns should be directed to

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Robert Fenstermacher

Robert Fenstermacher is a Product and Solutions Marketing Director at Aruba Networks with primary responsibility for developing and executing Aruba’s wireless LAN and network services strategy.  Mr. Fenstermacher has over 15 years of industry experience with senior product line management positions at Ascend Communications, Lucent Technologies, Sycamore Networks and Extreme Networks. Email Mr. Fenstermacher

About Aruba Networks

Aruba Networks is a leading provider of next-generation network access solutions for the mobile enterprise. The company’s Mobile Virtual Enterprise (MOVE) architecture unifies wired and wireless network infrastructures into one seamless access solution for corporate headquarters, mobile business professionals, remote workers and guests. This unified approach to access networks enables IT organizations and users to securely address the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon, dramatically improving productivity and lowering capital and operational costs.

Listed on the NASDAQ and Russell 2000® Index, Aruba is based in Sunnyvale, California, and has operations throughout the Americas, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific regions. For real-time news updates follow Aruba on Twitter and Facebook, and for the latest technical discussions on mobility and Aruba products visit Airheads Social.