There’s no 802.11ac in the new iPad Air: What that means for the wireless industry

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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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