Wi-Fi Standards: 802.11ac vs 802.11n

It is important to understand something of the standards used to measure Wi-Fi performance so that you can make the right choice for your business’s Wi-Fi deployment.

The first thing to look at is the Wi-Fi Alliance logo, most often seen as a black and white Wi-Fi sticker on cafe windows as a general claim that “we offer Wi-Fi”. However, it does have a specific meaning.


The Wi-Fi Alliance, now 16 years old, is a global network of companies that bring you Wi-Fi as you know it. They maintain and advance the quality of Wi-Fi products through certification. In the Wi-Fi Alliance’s own words:

Wi-Fi CERTIFIED is an internationally-recognized seal of approval for products indicating that they have met industry-agreed standards for interoperability, security, and a range of application specific protocols. See: http://www.wi-fi.org/who-we-are

For historic reasons, the standards all bear the name IEEE 802.11 followed by a single letter or pair of letters. Each standard builds upon the last, and the road map for future standards is already laid out. These standards are built into routers, smartphones, laptops, tablets, and TVs.

You can think of these standards as a series of steps in a staircase each building upon and improving on the last, ever moving upwards towards Wi-Fi heaven. If you look at the Wi-Fi logo on your device you will see coloured letters on either side of the black and white logo. These signify which standards your device is compliant with. Not all devices have the sticker but your TV and access points should. Before purchasing any Wi-Fi device without a sticker, you should check the product for certification. The following gallery shows the more famous devices that are Wi-Fi CERTIFIEDTM ac:

As the logo aims to make clear, backwards compatibility is maintained. However, the compatibility is always at the lower standard’s specifications.

And that’s the very reason you should pay attention to these standards across any network. Your phone, whether it be the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy s6, Chromecast or laptop, no matter how new or standards compliant, will only communicate as fast as the standard of compliance of the router or access point it is connecting to. And your new wireless router can only stream data to your device at the standard of your possibly aging, clunky device.

The Benefits of IEEE 802.11ac

The two 802.11 standards we are looking at are IEEE 802.11ac, which was finalised in 2013 and IEEE 802.11n which dates from 2007.

The benefits of IEEE 802.11ac over IEEE 802.11n are well documented. There is no question IEEE 802.11ac is faster, performs better over similar ranges, and offers greater user capacity. Here will just give a quick summary of the improvements:

  • A practical increase of at least 2.5 times the speed of data transfer
  • Enhanced through-put over similar range, and double the antennae capacity
  • Far greater user capacity. Wi-Fi CERTIFIEDTM ac devices will connect more-demanding apps across the cleaner, less used 5Ghz band, avoiding the more congested 2.4Ghz band

By 2019, 96% of devices will be Wi-Fi CERTIFIEDTM ac but, for now, these two standards co-exist. 2015 was an important year in this shift to Wi-Fi CERTIFIEDTM ac for the consumer. The start of certification of IEEE 802.11ac meant that devices could for the first time be tested and proven against the performance stipulations therein. As these things do, it then takes some time for these new devices to be rolled out commercially. It takes longer still for supply economics to bring down the price so that the standard becomes what is actually standard across all industries.

And that’s where we are now.

At the end of 2014, shipments of dual-band Wi-Fi chipsets meeting these two standards exceeded 1.5 billion. By the end of 2015, 70% of mobile devices sold were Wi-Fi CERTIFIEDTM ac.

In other words, we now find ourselves at a time when it makes sense to invest in Wi-Fi CERTIFIED ac infrastructure. The balance has tipped in its favour. The benefits for you, your business and your Wi-Fi users are there to seized.

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