Is Wireless Hardware Slowing You Down? – When To Upgrade Your Hardware To Boost Wi-Fi Performance

Wireless Photo - Wireless LAN

By: Chris Hartley

For the majority of SMBs , network hardware is only upgraded when it fails.  Servers, switches, and software are often upgraded only when left with no other option, as opposed to being part of a plan or schedule.  Is performance hindered by over-extending the use of legacy hardware?  Just because an outdated hardware solution is still functioning doesn’t mean it should continue to be used.  Conversely, just because the latest technology has become available, does not make it a necessity.  Based on an analysis of your internal wireless network (WLAN), an SMB owner or manager must take inventory of current infrastructure and compare to emerging technologies before making an informed decision on any change that makes sense for the business.

The best place to start is to determine what type of wireless hardware is currently deployed. Comparably few businesses are still utilizing legacy 802.11g hardware (introduced in 2003). These APs were cutting-edge technology of the time, but with limited speed (54Mbps) and concerns with security, any business would do well to sunset this technology sooner than later, due to strides that have been made in more recent years regarding wireless data speed and transmission.

The majority of Access Points operating in the market today are 802.11n (introduced in 2007). While not the most current iteration, these APs are solid and boast good data speed (theoretical up to 450Mbps – real world 240Mbps).  To frame its advantages, it should be explained that the introduction of Wireless-N also opened up additional space in the spectrum for wireless data transmission. For the first time, this allowed four spatial streams in a channel width of 40 MHz (Wireless-G only allowed two special streams).  This meant it could transmit four times the data simultaneously to wireless N clients.  Accordingly, 802.11n standardized the technical specifications for MIMO devices (multiple-input multiple-output).  Wireless N also boasted greatly improved security and coverage distance (approximately 75ft to 200ft in range), allowing for a better protected, faster network.

In 2013, the latest wireless standard was released – 802.11ac. The transition to Wireless-AC again greatly increased data speed (theoretical up to 1300Mbps – real world 720Mbps), running approximately three times faster than Wireless-N.  Wireless-AC technology works in part by expanding the MIMO capabilities introduced by Wireless-N, allowing up to eight spatial streams for data transmission.  While this new iteration does not increase wireless range per se, it does increase data rates at a particular range, so more data is delivered at a faster rate to that distance.  This is accomplished by implementing another leap in technology – Beamforming.  Beamforming is done by the access point, creating a smart-signal, aimed directly at the client once it’s detected. This allows for a focused signal to ‘beamed’ at the device, permitting a stronger, faster data connection.

The only drawback to Wireless-AC is the change in wireless adapters required to see the improvements. Until March of 2015, most devices being sold did not include the antenna configuration capable of using the improved data streams. This means that most devices would only run at Wireless-N speeds on a Wireless-AC access point.  Cell phone designers, who typically face the most rapid changes in technology, were the first to release devices fully designed around the AC standard (iPhone 6 / Galaxy S5).  Most other PC hardware producers followed, with Dell, Lenovo, and others incorporating the AC standard in all new 2015 hardware offerings.

So, should an SMB running Wireless-N upgrade to Wireless-AC now? It depends on the networking demands of the company as it applies to existing hardware.  If all PCs/laptops have been replaced before computer manufacturers began embracing Wireless-AC in 2015, and the company’s Wireless-N Access Point is fairly new – the answer would be no.  Under those circumstances, upgrading would show minimal immediate benefit; however, if a business has plans for a computer rollout, or the current Wireless-N AP is damaged or otherwise in need of being replaced, it would be wise to spend the additional difference (20-40% more) to upgrade to Wireless-AC.  This would increase speeds for any AC-capable mobile devices in the office and leave the company poised to accommodate any other hardware replacements that may leverage the Wireless-AC standard.

So what will be the next wireless breakthrough to look out for? No one can say for sure, but current trends indicate the next generation in wireless data manipulation will expand from the radio frequency realm into the light spectrum.  While data via light has been around for decades (fiber optic cabling), its incorporation into wireless data transmission is new.  This new ‘Li-Fi’ technology will enhance current APs, but likely not replace them.  Since light data transmission is limited to where light can go, it cannot pass through walls as Wi-Fi can, but could enhance and increase data speeds for any area that can be ‘lit-up’, allowing new devices fitted with light sensors to run on Li-Fi when available, or drop to Wi-Fi when required.  This new technology could be tied into new LED ceiling light systems, allowing entire buildings to be easily covered with signal.

To learn more from Tele-Optics, Inc. about options for improving existing network infrastructure, or to explore new networking solutions that offers a competitive advantage, please contact us today.