What is the 802.11ac WiFi standard?

802.11ac-2013, also known as 802.11ac, is a wireless networking standard established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 2013 that works at 5 GHz and provides high-throughput local area networks (WLANs) on the 5 GHz band. Want to know more about this? Then read our in-depth guide explaining everything about this topic.

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Ben Grindlow is the founder of ProXPN, a company that provides reviews about VPN products and services. Ben's interest in cybersecurity and privacy led him to start ProXPN, which has become one of the most well-respected VPN providers in the world. Ben is passionate about his work, and he is constantly exploring new ways to improve ProXPN's in-depth guides.

Last updated: 12:12PM 6/19/2022

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Wi-Fi is an important part of our lives. We connect more and more devices to it, from smartphones and laptops to refrigerators and even coffee machines. It is therefore a good thing that our Wi-Fi networks are constantly evolving. The variant most people use now is 802.11ac, also known as Wi-Fi 5, a number you may have seen on the box of a router or other device.

This is a blazing fast Wi-Fi standard. Do you want to know what 802.11ac exactly means? Then you’ve come to the right place!

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-fi is the technology used to connect wireless devices to the internet without needing to be physically connected to an access point, or a router. The router uses amplitude Exportmodulation: it sends out a radio signal, which is converted into data that you can use by your wireless device, whether that is a smart phone, printer, TV or any mobile device.

What is the difference between Wi-Fi, the web and the internet?

The terms ‘internet’. ‘world wide web’ and ‘wifi’ are often used interchangeably, and from a personal perspective, there is often very little difference. However, these three terms have very different meanings.

Simply put, ‘Internet’ refers to the network of physical servers, computers and cables that spans the globe; it is the hardware behind the web pages that we view everyday. When you access a webpage, the information for that page is drawn from a physical computer, sometimes on the other side of the world. The World Wide Web, or ‘web’ for short, is the way this network is navigated. If the internet a city, then the world wide web is the map.

Wi-Fi is the technology that allows a device to be connected to the internet without having to be physically plugged in. A router will be physically connected, allowing other wireless devices to communicate with that to access the internet.

What are Wi-Fi standards?

We have been using Wi-Fi for a long time and our Wi-Fi networks continue to evolve. International Wi-Fi standards have been created to ensure that all devices that use Wi-Fi can communicate properly with each other. There is even a foundation, the Wi-Fi Alliance, that checks whether devices meet these standards and gives them a quality mark.

The first Wi-Fi standard was IEEE 802.11, developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). This version, which is now called 802.11 legacy, has had many successors, which we all refer to with the same numbers, but different letters.

New Wi-Fi standards must always be a lot faster than previous standards. This tends to come from new technologies and increased channel width. We have now arrived at the IEEE 802.11ac. It was released in 2013 and is currently one of the most widely used standards. Its predecessor was the IEEE 802.11n, developed in 2007. In an industry where new devices are released on a yearly basis, this six year gap is a long time, and so the improvements that 802.11ac brings to wireless networking are big too.

Who is the WiFi Alliance?

The Wi-Fi Alliance is a group of tech companies who develop and promote WiFi technology, aiming to make wireless access ubiquitous. They own trademarks such as Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 and research new technology such as the Internet of Things – the expansion of the Internet to include mobile devices connected over Wi-Fi. Their logo is used to reassure buyers that the devices are of a certain quality and compatibility.

What is IEEE 802.11?

IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is a professional body responsible for official standards within the area of electronics and computing. Each of their standards is given a numerical code, which refers to a specific topic within an area.

The ‘802’ tag refers to a group of standards that involve networks, with the ‘.11’ specifically referring to wireless LAN.

What are the key aspects of IEEE 802.11ac?

Primarily, IEEE 802.11ac moves away from frequency bands commonly used in previous standards, such as the 2.4 GHz band used in IEEE 802.11n to the 5 GHz frequency. The 5 GHz frequency tends to have less interference as it is not used by bluetooth devices or cordless phones. Most routers are dual band so that they are backward compatible, allowing data transfer across both the new 5 GHz and the older 2.4 GHz frequencies.

Unlike earlier standards, IEEE 802.11ac can use up to eight spatial streams. It also makes use of MIMO technology, a technology that uses multiple transmitters to allow for multiple output and multiple receivers to allow for multiple input. Multiple-input, Multiple-Output allows for much higher data speeds and more bandwidth.

While previous standards could be connected to only one device, or up to four clients in 802.11n, 802.11ac allows for multiple devices to connect via multi-user MIMO technology, often referred to as MU-MIMO.

MU-MIMO allows multiple devices to be connected to the router, making best use of the spatial streams and less used frequency bands for faster data streams.

Are there other Wi-Fi standards?

Under the IEEE 802.11 tag there are a number of standards, from earlier wi-fi standards such as IEEE 802.11 legacy to IEEE 802.11be, which is the most advanced generation of wireless standards and represents the next leap in wi-fi technology.

To date there have been twenty IEEE standards within the 802.11 band, with six of these related to the consumer friendly names of Wi-Fi 1 to Wi-Fi 6.

Wi-Fi 6 refers to the new wi-fi standard 802.11ax, the next standard to be taken up. This will allow for an increase in connected devices but still maintain backward compatibility.

More futuristic still is the pending standard for 802.11aj, also known as the China millimeter wave. This is intended to improve take up of 5G technologies and lower energy consumption while using them. Meanwhile the ‘wake-up radio’ technology of IEEE standard 802.11ba is groundbreaking and should dramatically extend the battery life of connected devices. A connected device might experience higher power consumption and therefore lower battery life, and so any technology that increases this without compromising on data speeds is beneficial.

Can I improve my coverage of 802.11ac?

The use of 5 GHz in 802.11ac means that the waves have a tendency to be interrupted by walls in indoor environments, but there are ways around this. Beamforming technology is one such way. While traditionally, routers would have one antenna, beamforming technology means using multiple antennas, which are becoming increasingly common to support MU-MIMO technology, to shape the transmission. The multiple antennas can transmit beamforming in such a way that you can minimize lack of coverage within your home, without having to compromise by using more crowded frequency bands.

You can also increase the number of access points within your home to create a WAN. This is especially useful if you work from home, or need a continuous strong Wi-Fi connection.

Isn’t 802.11ax already available?

That’s right! This standard was demonstrated for the first time in 2018, but can only be seen in a few places for the time being. The Wi-Fi alliance has designated this as Wi-Fi 6.

Although today’s best routers are already ‘ax-ready’, only a few client devices are compatible with the 802.11ax standard, meaning that the majority of households still rely on 802.11ac.

How does 802.11ac work?

Wireless networks use radio frequencies to transmit their signal. The 802.11n standard mainly uses the 2.4 GHz frequency band. This band is very busy. Many devices are connected to it, from smartphones to Bluetooth devices and microwave ovens. In some cases, however, it also runs on the optional 5 GHz frequency band.

On the 2.4 GHz frequency band, you will quickly suffer from a disturbance in your signal due to crowds. The 802.11ac standard makes easier use of the much quieter 5 GHz frequency band, which allows higher wireless speeds.

Using the 5 GHz frequency band also affects the range of your Wi-Fi signal. The 5 GHz signal has a shorter range and is less able to penetrate walls than the 2.4 GHz signal. The advantage of this is that your Wi-Fi signal is limited to your own home and does not reach the neighbors, and vice versa. However, it is a disadvantage if you want a large range, for example in a large building or when you have thick walls.

When using an 802.11ac router, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with other devices. 802.11ac routers are backwards compatible with 802.11n devices. Of course, the performance is less good due to the use of the old device.

How fast is the 802.11ac standard?

When we speak of how fast or the speed of Wi-Fi, what we are really speaking of is the rate of data transfer. Faster speeds been that the wireless router can send data to the client device at a greater rate. This is also known as the wireless throughput.

In theory, 802.11ac has maximum data rates of 7 Gbps and is comparable to Gigabit Ethernet. This means you can transfer 900 megabytes per second with it. If you consider that an MP3 file has an average size of 4 megabytes, you can imagine that this is an enormous maximum speed, and very high throughput. However, theory is always different from practice and you cannot achieve such data rates at home. The high theoretical data rate is partly due to the fact that the 802.11ac can use eight spatial streams, compared to the four spatial streams of 802.11n. Normally, however, you only use two or three spatial streams. This means that in practice the rate is one third of the theoretical speed. Furthermore, the data rate also depends on a number of other factors, such as the number of client devices. One device on the network will lead to a higher throughput than a large number of devices.

What devices support 802.11ac?

While perhaps not as efficient as Wi-Fi 6, 802.11ac, the multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology, along with increased channel width and efforts to ensure the technology is backward compatible means that most modern devices will be supported by 802.11ac. Some older devices may not support 5 GHz frequencies, but they can still use the 2.4 GHz frequency.

How do I know if my devices are 802.11ac compatible?

Most manufacturers will state can use the higher frequency bands associated with 802.11ac. Look out for devices that support dual-band wifi, Wifi 5 or 802.11ac. If they support this they will be able to make full use of the greater number of spatial streams and wider channels offered by 802.11ac.

Wi-Fi continues to develop

The 802.11ac is a significant improvement over its predecessor. That’s a good thing, because we expect more and more from our Wi-Fi network. The 802.11ac Wi-Fi is only going to get better in use. Due to further developments in our devices, the speed in practice is getting closer and closer to the theoretical speed. Soon, internet cables will no longer be necessary at all. So make sure your devices in your home are 802.11ac capable so you can take advantage of:

  • Stable wireless internet without interference;
  • Broadly fast internet, even to stream videos;
  • A house without internet cables;
  • Compatibility with older devices.

While 802.11ac is still the most popular Wi-Fi standard, we can already see new variants on the horizon: 802.11ad and 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6. For the time being, however, you will not notice this much, because most clients are not (yet) suitable for it. These standards also bring their own unique improvements and applications. This is how our Wi-Fi network continues to develop.

Frequently asked questions

The WiFi standard 802.11ac (1,300 Mbps; 1.3 GBps) has a theoretical maximum speed of 2,300 Mbps (2.3 Gbps). It was the first WiFi standard to offer gigabit speeds rather than megabit speeds, owing to its creation. 802.11n had a theoretical speed of 450 Mbps (0.45 Gbps).

A typical 802.11ac access point can handle up to eight data streams. Only one client device is required to support it.

802.11ac’s higher frequency allows for improved performance, but it also has the potential to cause interoperability issues with legacy devices. In comparison with 802.11n, it automatically produces 160MHz channels when using eight spatial streams (2×160 MIMO).

The upper data-speed ceiling of 802.11ac devices is 1.3 Gbps, as opposed to 450 Mbps for 802.11n, which was the previous Wi-Fi standard.

The 802.11ac standard, on the other hand, supports 20 MHz channels, 40 MHz channels, 80 MHz channels, and 160 MHz channels.

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