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Summary:

Apple likes to let new radio technologies mature, so it’s hardly a shock that the newest Wi-Fi tech didn’t make its way into the iPad. But we’ll have to wait longer to see large-scale 802.11ac adoption in mobile.

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The new iPad Air will have much faster Wi-Fi than its predecessor, but not as fast as many had hoped. The new tablet doesn’t sport the new 802.11ac standard, even though Apple’s latest generation routers, PCs and laptops all support it. While Apple’s decision to eschew the standard in this round of mobile devices isn’t surprising, it will definitely delay the broader industry’s adoption of the new Wi-Fi technology.

What Apple is providing is a speed boost to the now thoroughly established 802.11n networking standard in the form of multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) smart antenna technology. Like many Wi-Fi routers on the market the iPad Air has dual antennas, allowing it to wend two parallel paths over the unlicensed airwaves. The MIMO implementation will double the speeds at which the iPad can access Wi-Fi networks, according to Apple.

iPad Air

While there probably a lot of people disappointed that Apple didn’t offer the 802.11ac upgrade in this round of iPads — especially those who just bought a new Apple Airport Extreme Router — there was only a slim chance that Apple would support the technology anyway. When it comes to mobile devices, Apple has always been conservative with new standards — we’ve seen it with Bluetooth, 3G and LTE — preferring to let new technologies mature before embracing them.

The Wi-Fi Alliance only began certifying commercial 802.11ac devices in June, and even those devices only incorporate partial versions of the full 802.11ac spec. The IEEE isn’t expected to fully finalize the standard until 2014. Very few smartphones and tablets have ac embedded as of yet, though the technology is making its way into consumer and enterprise routers and PCs, including Apple’s newest MacBooks and iMacs.

But waiting another year for 802.11ac-enabled iPhones and iPads also means we’ll probably have to wait another year before we see widescale adoption of the standard in public hotspots and access points. Unlike in the home, most outdoor and public Wi-Fi connections are made over mobile devices, not PCs.

In a recent interview, Boingo VP of corporate communications Christian Gunning said it hasn’t turned up 802.11ac in any of its hundreds of thousands of owned and managed hotspots yet, simply because it’s seeing very few devices with ac radios trying to access its network.

It might seem like I’m exaggerating Apple’s influence when it comes to popularizing new technology, but the iPhone and the iPad’s reach shouldn’t be underestimated. New Passpoint-certified phones have been out for more than a year, but it wasn’t until Apple started offering support for Passpoint’s automatic login technology in iOS7 that the wireless industry took notice. The week Apple made iOS7 publicly available, was the week Boingo started Passpoint trials.

Be sure to check out the rest of GigaOM’s coverage of Apple’s event as well as Kevin Tofel’s archived live blog.

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  1. The most revealing comment was from Boingo’s VP remarking on very limited 802.11ac access point deployment. Not designing ac into this iPad may be both pragmatic and a shrewd product cost move. A similar situation has developed with deployment of NFC on smartphones.

  2. I think you’re overlooking the most obvious point of not carrying the ac standard: It’s unlikely you’ll ever need that much bandwidth on a phone or tablet, especially when your broadband connection would never saturate it either. You aren’t going to transfer giant files from your PC over that connection.

    1. Fair point Jeff, but there are advantages besides raw speed to adopting more advanced Wi-Fi technologies. Greater capacities and more spectrally efficient channels mean a better experience for people sharing access point. Beamforming means greater range in the 5 GHz band.

      You’re right Apple doesn’t have any interest today in getting a 1 Gbps connection to the phone or tablet (and with today’s AC chips that’s not even possible). But the industry overall has an interest in moving to AC sooner rather than later. You create a better network for all devices even if each individual device can’t take advantage of the network’s full capabilities.

      1. Great discussion Kevin…. I’ll add a point here to help.

        Many people understand speed of transmission, or throughput, and instantly think about applications that will drive said bandwidth needs.

        In the 802.11 world we remain in a shared medium. This means that while one client device transmits or receives the others must wait. The sooner one client device is off the channel, the sooner another client device can come on.

        All that said, I do agree that Apple’s impact is significant within the industry… keeping 11ac out of the iPhone 5s and iPad Air will reduce the overall need of 11ac in many environments. Many will be wise to wait for ratification, and lessons to be learnt w/ 11ac deployments in the real world.

  3. If Apple decide in the future to incorporate AC wireless, is this something they can do via a software update or is it down to the hardware itself?

    I have just purchased an iPhone 5s so wondering whether this may be AC compatible in the future with an IOS upgrade or is it impossible because it doesn’t have the relevant hardware?

    1. Craig the Broadcom chip inside only supports 11n so there’s no way to add 11ac in the future.

  4. Will devices like the iphone 5s be made compatible with AC wireless via firmware update in the future or is it not possible due to the hardware?

  5. Hi Craig, unless Apple has some secret ac chip in the guts of the phone, that won’t be possible. Moving to 802.11ac means hardware.

  6. I was planning on buying a new iMac early in the new year and an Airport Extreme Router, too. I was really hoping for the ac standard to find its way onto the iPad announced yesterday. Now I’m not sure if I’ll bother with either the router or iPad. An ac configured Apple TV would’ve been nice also. Am I overestimating the benefit of the newer standard and thus missing out on the inherent goodness of the current generation of these devices?

    1. Pr …you’re safe to buy the newest 11ac Airport. It is using faster chipsets so even 11n devices are seeing faster throughput and better range.

      I’m upgrading my 3rd gen Time Capsule to a 11ac AE next year and i’ll slowly start moving my devices to 11ac starting out hopefully with either a Haswell based Mac mini or a Retina Macbook Pro.

      If i’m a betting man I’m thinking that the reason why mobile devices don’t have 11ac is twofold.

      1. Not enough availability of the new 11ac chipset
      2. New 11ac chipset consumes more power than Apple wants.

      11ac is great for mobile. You can pass 360+ Mbps through a single antenna as opposed to 150Mbps with 11n. Plus it’s 5Ghz

      1. Thanks H. You sold me!
        PR

  7. You just have to love all these Apple releases trying to push a wireless standard that hasn’t even come out to final committee release yet. Apple is just a consumer products company trying to force it’s version of so called standards upon us.

    The real performance version of 802.11ac which will be the 2nd official release will support 160 MHz channel bandwidths which will require Cat6a cabling with PoE+ and 10Gb connections to AP’s. I don’t even know of a single wireless ap controller that even has the needed 10Gb NIC ports but surely those will be coming.

    1. I’d be interested to see your sources here. I can’t imagine that they REQUIRE power via PoE+. I can see offering the capability, but a requirement? Same for your uplink statement; requiring a 10Gb interface? I’m skeptical. I’d think they’d offer 100Mb, Gigabit, and 10Gb speed/duplex settings.

  8. Thanks, this explains nicely why there’s no AC. Nice if it had it tho’……I don’t care if my web page opens point so and so faster, but games likes Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy really needs virtually no lag to play….

  9. whaaaaah. was expecting ac in ipad air and a new apple tv.
    problems with range in new home caused me to hope.
    dang stuff that i don’t understand, anywho!

  10. People don’t think like engineers when it comes to wireless standards and quite frankly, why should they?

    Mike Leibovitz hits the nail on the head with what he says, “In the 802.11 world we remain in a shared medium.”

    Let’s say it’s a quiet day in Starbucks and 10 people all try and access a 1 MB webpage simultaneously. I’ve never seen an iPhone move faster than 60 Mbps on a WiFi speed test. Let’s be generous, let’s go with 60 Mbps, that equals 7.5 MB per second. Our webpages load in perfect circumstances in 1.33 seconds. In reality those radios would be waiting for each other and all sorts, so it’s going to be longer. Let’s say it’s a small conference hall, you could easily multiply that by 10. 13.3 seconds becomes our ideal case. In reality much beyond this and WiFi becomes unusable.

    Let’s revisit the scenario with 802.11ac. The standard is a beast of complexity and that is a serious issue, but let’s talk about the top kit on sale now. Routers capable of over 500 Mbps real throughput (Asus RT-AC68U) and smartphones capable of 200 Mbps (Nexus 5, Galaxy S4).

    The 10 people at Starbucks get their webpages in a snappier 0.4 seconds and that conference works out at a much more acceptable 4 seconds.

    Wait a minute though, the above is over simplified. Actually 802.11ac is much better than that. It has a very special and very clever trick up it’s sleeve, Multi user MIMO. 802.11ac can simultaneously deliver separate spatial streams to separate clients. It’s quite a party trick. Current routers top out at 3x streams, but the standard provisions up to 8x. Let’s go with what’s actually around now and look at hose numbers again.

    10 doesn’t go neatly into 4, so we end up with the same performance of 4 users as 3 x 3 = 9 plus the remainder. When adjusted for that, our 10 people at Starbucks get the page in 0.16 seconds.

    100 / 3 = 33.33. So we have the same performance of 34 users (as 99 of the users get one of 3 simultaneous MIMO streams). Now the people at the conference get that page in 1.36 seconds, just 0.06s longer 802.11n took to provision to 1/10th the amount.

    802.11ac when done right is totally awesome. We haven’t even got into beamforming yet! It’s a truly wonderful standard and you don’t have to be moving 4K video around wirelessly to appreciate it.

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