Wi-Fi networks are wasting a gigabit -- but multi-user beamforming will save the day

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Wi-Fi equipment based on the new 802.11ac standard -- often called Gigabit Wi-Fi -- has been on the market for nearly two years. These products offer greater bandwidth and other improvements over gear based on the older 802.11n specification, but they don’t implement one of the most impressive features of 11ac.

It was simply too complicated to deploy all the upgrades at once, hardware makers say. As a result, 11ac networks actually waste a lot of capacity when serving devices like smartphones and tablets. This shortcoming should be fixed with new networking equipment and upgrades to end-user devices.

Once everything is in place, Wi-Fi networks will be better able to serve lots of devices at once, particularly the mobile devices that every single person in the US seemingly has in his or her hands every minute of the day. The soon-to-be-deployed technology is called MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple-input and multiple-output), which is like a wireless "switch" that sends different data to different receivers at the same time.

It's powered by multi-user beamforming, an improvement over the single-user beamforming found in first-generation 11ac products. MU-MIMO will let wireless access points send data streams of up to 433Mbps to at least three users simultaneously, for a total of 1.3Gbps or more. Large-scale Wi-Fi deployments could include hundreds of access points sending signals to thousands of devices.

As such, they have to efficiently handle roaming and coordinate channel assignment, all while doing it automatically without forcing IT shops to do extra configuration. These features are what “make large-scale Wi-Fi feel like the Wi-Fi in your home,” Gast said.

Wi-Fi networks are wasting a gigabit -- but multi-user beamforming will save the day