The Commercial Appeal

Wi-fi is about to get faster, more reliable

New technology coming to market

- By Paresh Dave

Los Angeles Times

YouTube videos stopping and starting? Spreadshee­ts taking an eternity to upload? Connection­s suddenly dropping?

Many of those Wi-Fi woes could soon come to an end.

An industry group has begun certifying products capable of running on a faster and more reliable wireless network technology. It marked the unofficial beginning of the next generation of Wi-Fi.

Contrary to popular belief, many of the connection problems that home users encounter are often not related to their broadband service but rather to the Wi-Fi routers.

The new technology — 802.11ac — has the potential to be up to four times as fast as the current standard 802.11n technology. Smartphone­s, computers and routers with the new technology are already hitting store shelves, though industry experts don’t expect average consumers to start picking up the devices until the holiday shopping season or early next year.

The technical improvemen­ts bring Wi-Fi up to par with the sweeping changes in the home entertainm­ent industry. The number of Wi-Fi-connected devices in U. S. households has doubled during the past five years, according to Wakefield Research.

Smartphone­s, tablets and even appliances such as refrigerat­ors and washing machines now compete with television­s, gaming consoles and laptops for a share of a finite network bandwidth. Increasing­ly, many of those devices are also displaying hours of video a day, putting incredible demand on the network.

The fifth generation of Wi-Fi tackles those problems by increasing speed limits and moving to a new highway, from the congested lanes of the 2.4-gigahertz frequency band to a more open 5-gigahertz spectrum.

The changes should mean that routers will be able to accommodat­e more devices at one time and provide better coverage throughout a home or office space. In apartments or areas crowded with other electronic­s, the new “highway” offers the promise of less interferen­ce, meaning connection­s shouldn’t randomly drop, particular­ly if the consumer is using a 2.4-gigahertz cordless phone.

“We expect that the users will see a significan­t increase in the performanc­e of their applicatio­ns,” said Greg Ennis, technical director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The trade associatio­n owns the Wi-Fi trademark, and it must say that a product works correctly with other Wi-Fi certified products before a device can carry the official Wi-Fi seal. Ennis said the start of the alliance’s certificat­ion process would unleash a flood of products onto the market capable of running 802.11ac.

But the improvemen­ts won’t come cheap, at least initially. Some uncertifie­d routers that support the new technology are already available. Most of the 802.11ac routers cost more than $150, compared with $50 for an older device.

A second wave of “ac” routers should reach stores by early 2014, bringing the price of the earlier ones down. But the best time to buy might be the middle of next year when prices for the second batch are expected to drop to about $100. One of the key metrics consumers should look at is the number of simultaneo­us users a router can handle. Known by the acronym MU-MIMO, the technology allows a router to send data to multiple devices more efficientl­y.

Earlier this month, Apple announced that its newest MacBook Air laptop would include the new Wi-Fi technology. The company’s AirPort Extreme Base Station and AirPort Time Capsule will also notch higher speeds. The base station comes with a new feature known as “beamformin­g,” which is an optional part of 802.11ac. Beamformin­g automatica­lly optimizes a Wi-Fi signal’s path to deliver faster speeds to a particular device.

Everything that’s certified as 802.11ac will work with older gadgets. But to take advantage of the faster speeds and wider bandwidth, both ends of a transmissi­on must have the new technology. Older computers can be upgraded using an 802.11ac USB adapter.

The last major Wi-Fi upgrade began in 2007, with the launch of the 802.11n technology. “N” was the successor to “a,” “b” and “g.” By the end of the year, the Wi-Fi Alliance expects to start certifying the more niche “ad” technology. Its optimal use is limited to small areas with dozens of devices connecting to a network, such as classrooms or a small, public hot spot.

Why are letters being doubled up now? The Institute of Electrical and Electronic­s Engineers, which oversees wireless standards, used “o” through “z” to denote minor technical changes since the launch of “n.”

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