802.11ac vs. 802.11n

General Wireless Technologies

What it means:

802.11 is a family of wireless standards created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). 802.11n is the older version of Wi-Fi, launched in 2009. It improved over previous versions of Wi-Fi with multiple radios, advanced transmit and receive techniques, and the option to use 5 GHz spectrum—all of which translate to a data rate of up to 600 Mbps.

802.11ac, introduced in 2014, is the latest generation. It adds wider channels and the ability to utilize up to eight data streams (“spatial streams”) with downlink using multi-user multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) techniques for simultaneous transmission on up to four devices. These are changes over the previous standard that yield a maximum data rate of more than 3 Gbps, and even higher in the future. It also operates exclusively in the cleaner, capacity-rich 5 GHz frequency band.

Why you should care:

Older 802.11n technology is now widely deployed, and still does a good job for many applications. But if you’re deploying wireless infrastructure today, especially in a new, “green field” deployment, 802.11ac is the way to go. You might have heard some grumbling about real-world 802.11ac throughput gains not living up to expectations. And that was sometimes true for early products. But the second generation of 802.11ac—known as “Wave 2”—delivers major advantages over 802.11n, with room to grow. To get the most from 802.11ac, however, you need solutions built with solid wireless fundamentals, thoughtful radio design and very good antennas.