Does 802.11ac Mean the End of Wired Ethernet?

Look around and you will see wireless networks are linking people to systems everywhere, from residential apartments to high-rise office buildings. This wireless connectivity is not only restricted to mobile devices, but encompasses all types of digital equipment.

A new wireless standard, 802.11ac, promises to speed up connection of wireless networks beyond what Ethernet connections can offer, but let’s not plan for the funeral of Ethernet too quickly.

Based on research conducted by Nemertes, 50% of companies are increasing budgets for mobile connectivity and the additional funding is not confined to only mobile devices. Approximately 29% of users are relying on Wi-Fi as the principal method to connect in a corporate environment, a figure that has expanded two-fold in the past 24 months.

The increased demand has been met with improved wireless standards. The latest 802.11ac Wave 2 standard promises to offer a bandwidth upwards of 6 GB, a drastic increase from the 1.6 GB offered by Wave 1. It might be time to for businesses to completely discard their wired networks, but three considerations should be taken into account before cutting the wire.

Wireless networks have distributed access points throughout an office, which connects back to Cat 6 or 5e cabling linked to a 1 GigE Ethernet switch port. Generally, the switch will power the AP.

Upgrading wireless bandwidth to 6 GB per second will quickly clog the 1 GB uplink. The answer to this problem is not as simple as upgrading the link to 10 GigE from 1 GigE to accommodate the extra wireless bandwidth.

Moving up to 10 GigE will require the corporation to incur additional costs and increase complexity. First, switch ports supporting 10 GigE are generally more expensive. A requirement for a larger number of ports will imply a significant investment for Ethernet switches with an additional budget required to upgrade to LAN core from distributed switches.

Another issue is that a 10Gig E switch necessitates Category 7 or 6e cabling that can reach only 100 meters. This means that if the APs and closet switches are not close enough, the company will have to run fiber cables (they can support up to 260 meters runs via Mulitmode).

A final problem is that 10 GigE is not capable of handling Power over Ethernet (PoE). Again, if your current setup powers AP’s through Ethernet, you will have to modify your connectivity setup. Eventually, IEEE will support PoE for 10 GigE, but currently this option is not available.

The IT industry did anticipate the problem the corporation would face in trying to upgrade AP links for 10 GigE. Therefore, WLAN and LAN service providers have developed an alternative approach. They are offering customers the option to upgrade uplinks to 5 GB, which can support PoE.

However, even this solution is not ideal. There is no IEEE standard for 5 GigE, switch and AP. This has forced vendors to collaborate, but it has led to the creation of multiple groups. The result is the development of non-interoperable approaches.

One group consists of Cisco joining the NBASE-T Alliance and in the other group, Alatel-Lucent, Aruba, Avaya, Brocade and Extreme Networks have teamed up to create the MGBASE-T Alliance. Eventually, the work both groups have done will be incorporated by IEEE’s standard development group to create compatibilities within their systems, but that will take over a year.

Network Backbone
Even if you could solve the problem of upgrading your uplink, you will have to deal with the downstream effects of additional bandwidth capacity. Usually with uplinks of 1 bonded GB or less than 10 GB, you will need to upgrade bandwidth to at least 40 GB. This will require an investment in wiring upgrades and blade or switch upgrades among other upgrades.

Power of Ethernet for Phones

Even if your office is capable of going wireless, you will still have to think about powering your desktop phone systems (not all companies have moved to soft-phones and headsets). Generally, Ethernet phones are powered via PoE. In a wireless environment, you will need to find an alternative power source, possibly a simple power cable running from every desktop phone to an outlet.

If this is your solution, your IT structure team will have to consider power reliability issues for phones, particularly in areas with weak cell phone coverage. The costs to consider will be a power pack per phone and a UPS for your office or building to keep your phones functioning in case of electrical down time.

The new Wave 2 802.11ac wireless standard might kill Ethernet in some small offices, but for now, Ethernet will survive in bigger locations. However, it is now possible to envision a future disentangled from Ethernet cables. Once IEEE standard development committee can incorporate competing solutions for 5-GigE operability in their standards, it will be easier for corporations to make the switch.

VoIP phones are gaining popularity rapidly because of their cost benefits and so communication is already moving onto the digital platform. Networks backbones have been continuously adapted to meet increased bandwidth demand and it will be no different this time. Although the road might be a little bumpy, offices will eventually be wireless environments.

Learn more about 802.11ac solutions from Zebra Technologies.

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