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What is the 802.11ac Wi-Fi: Everything You Need to Know


In this 21st century of ours, where everyone can be seen with smart devices, faster Wi-Fi is the universal need among every individual. The evolution of man is taking a new turn and that is the access to more prudent technological advancement. To cut the story short, if faster Wi-Fi is what you crave, the 802.11ac is what you need. This guide explains everything you need to know about 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

There have been various Wi-Fi alliances, some of which we would shed light on in this article. But some, under the preference of the Wi-Fi Alliance, have been recognized as thus.

Under its naming convention, the alliance;

  • 802.11ax is called Wi-Fi 6.
  • 802.11ac is now Wi-Fi 5.
  • 802.11n is Wi-Fi 4.

The idea, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, is to make matching endpoint and router capabilities a simpler matter for the rank-and-file user of Wi-Fi technology. Meanwhile, it’s imperative to know that the Wi-Fi Alliance has not made up simpler names for all the 802.11 standards, so it’s important to be familiar with the traditional designations.

COPYRIGHT_NOVA: Published on https://www.novabach.com/i/what-is-the-802-11ac-wi-fi/ by Daniel Barrett on 2022-07-31T11:15:54.000Z

Also, the IEEE, which continues to work on newer versions of 802.11, has not adopted these new names, so trying to track down details about them using the new names will make the task more complicated

What Is 802.11ac?

IEEE 802.11ac or 802.11ac is known as a wireless networking standard in the 802.11 set of protocols, that provides high-throughput wireless local area networks on the 5GHZ band. The standard has been retroactively labelled as Wi-Fi by Alliance.

How 802.11ac Works

In some time past, 802.11ac brought about the advent of a few super-speed boosts technological devices. These technological devices had a superior boost over the likes of 802.11b and 802.11g. The 802.11ac has a similar feature that is likened to that of 802.11n.

This can be seen in the event that 802.11n supports four spatial streams (4×4 MIMO) and also a channel of 40-Megahertz width. In addition to this, the 802.11ac can make use of eight spatial streams and also 80MHz width of channels. These can be combined to sum up 160MHz channels.

In assumption, if nothing is changed, it means the 802.11ac has 8x160MHz of spectral bandwidth to contend with the 4x40MHz. An undisputable difference that grants the 802.11ac an edge in wringing huge amount of data across the airwaves.

In a bid to increase output more, the 802.11ac also introduces the 256-QAM modulation (a boost from 64-QAM in 802.11n). This produces 256 signals over the same frequency by adjusting each into a tad different phase. Theoretically, this quadruples the spectral efficiency of 802.11ac over 802.11n.

The efficiency of a given wireless protocol or multiplexing technique that utilizes the bandwidth available for it is measured by the Spectral Efficiency. In the 5GHz band, where channels are fairly wide (20MHz+), spectral efficiency isn’t so important. However, cellular band channels are often only 5MHz wide, which makes spectral efficiency very important.

802.11ac also introduces standardized beamforming (802.11n had it, but it wasn’t standardized, which made interoperability an issue). Beamforming transmits radio signals in such a way that they’re directed at a specific device.

This can increase overall throughput and make it more consistent, as well as reduce power consumption. Beamforming can be done with smart antennae that physically move to track a device, or by modulating the amplitude and phase of the signals so that they destructively interfere with each other, leaving just a narrow, interference-free beam.

The older 802.11n uses this second method, which can be implemented by both routers and mobile devices.

Finally, 802.11ac, like 802.11 versions before it, is fully backward compatible — so you can buy an 802.11ac router today, and it should work just fine with your older 802.11n and 802.11g Wi-Fi devices.

How Fast Is 802.11ac?

In theory, on the 5GHz band and using beamforming, 802.11ac should have the same or better range than 802.11n (without beamforming). The 5GHz band, thanks to less penetration power, doesn’t have quite the same range as 2.4GHz (802.11b/g).

But that’s the trade-off we have to make: There simply isn’t enough spectral bandwidth in the massively overused 2.4GHz band to allow for 802.11ac’s gigabit-level speeds. As long as your router is well-positioned, or you have multiple routers, it shouldn’t matter much. The more important factors will be the transmission power and antenna quality of your devices.

And finally, the question everyone wants to know: Just how fast is Wi-Fi 802.11ac? As always, there are two answers: the theoretical max speed that can be achieved in the lab, and the practical maximum speed you’ll most likely receive at home in the real world, surrounded by lots of signal-attenuating obstacles.

Also read: How to Find Free WiFi Hotspots Near You

The Theoretical Max Of WiFi 802.11ac

The theoretical speed of 802.11ac is eight 160MHz 256-QAM channels, each of which are capable of 866.7Mbps, for a total of 6,933Mbps, or just shy of 7Gbps.

That’s a transfer rate of 900 megabytes per second — more than you can squeeze down a SATA 3 link. In the real world, thanks to channel contention, you probably won’t get more than two or three 160MHz channels, so the max speed comes down to somewhere between 1.7Gbps and 2.5Gbps. Compare this with 802.11n’s max theoretical speed, which is 600Mbps.

In situations where you don’t need the maximum performance and reliability of wired gigabit Ethernet — still a good option for situations requiring the highest performance — 802.11ac is certainly compelling.

Instead of cluttering up your living room by running an Ethernet cable to the home theater PC under your TV, 802.11ac now has enough bandwidth to wirelessly stream the highest-definition content to your game console, and set-top box, or home theater PC. For all but the most demanding use cases, 802.11ac is a workable alternative to Ethernet.

The Future Of 802.11ac

802.11ac will only get faster, too. As we mentioned earlier, the theoretical max speed of 802.11ac is just shy of 7Gbps — and while you’ll never hit that in a real-world scenario, we wouldn’t be surprised to see link speeds of 2Gbps or more in the next few years.

At 2Gbps, you’ll get a transfer rate of 256MB/sec, and suddenly Ethernet serves less and less purpose if that happens. To reach such speeds, chipset and device makers will need to implement four or more 802.11ac streams, both in terms of software and hardware.

We imagine Broadcom, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Marvell, and Intel are already well on their way to implementing four- and eight-stream 802.11ac solutions for integration in the latest routers, access points, and mobile devices — but until the 802.11ac spec is finalized, second-wave chipsets and devices are unlikely to emerge.

Chipset and device manufacturers have plenty of work ahead to ensure advanced features, such as beamforming, comply with the standard and are interoperable with other 802.11ac devices.

Some Other Wi-Fi Standards And Their Specifications


Also known as China Millimeter Wave, this defines modifications to the 802.11ad physical layer and MAC layer to enable operation in the China 59-64GHz frequency band. The goal is to maintain backward compatibility with 802.11ad (60GHz) when it operates in that 59-64GHz range and to operate in the China 45GHz band while maintaining the 802.11 user experience. Final approval was expected in November 2017.

Also read: How to Fix WiFi Authentication Error on Android


There are some products in the home entertainment and industrial-control spaces that have 802.11 wireless capability and 802.3 Ethernet function. The goal of this standard is to help 802.11 media provide internal connections as transit links within 802.1q bridged networks, especially in the areas of data rates, standardized security and quality-of-service improvements. It reached a draft status in November 2017.

802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6)

Known as High-Efficiency WLAN, 802.11ax aims to improve the performance in WLAN deployments in dense scenarios, such as sports stadiums and airports, while still operating in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum.

The group is targeting at least a 4X improvement in throughput compared to 802.11n and 802.11ac., through more efficient spectrum utilization. Approval was estimated to be in July 2019.


Also known as Next Generation 60GHz, the goal of this standard is to support a maximum throughput of at least 20Gbps within the 60GHz frequency (802.11ad currently achieves up to 7Gbps), as well as increase the range and reliability. The standard was expected to be approved between September and November 2019.

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Called Next Generation Positioning (NGP), a study group was formed in January 2015 to address the needs of a “Station to identify its absolute and relative position to another station or stations it’s either associated or unassociated with.”

The goals of the group would be to define modifications to the MAC and PHY layers that enable “determination of absolute and relative position with better accuracy with respect to the Fine Timing Measurement (MTM) protocol executing on the same PHY-type, while reducing existing wireless medium use and power consumption, and is scalable to dense deployments.” The current estimate for approval of this standard was March 2021.


Otherwise known as “Wake-Up Radio” (WUR), this isn’t a crazy morning zoo-crew thing, but rather a new technology aimed at extending the battery life of devices and sensors within an Internet of Things network. The goal of the WUR is to “greatly reduce the need for frequent recharging and replacement of batteries while still maintaining optimum device performance.” This was currently expected to be approved in July 2020.

Also read: How to Find WiFi Password on Your Android Device

Outdated Wi-Fi Standards

  • 802.11ah (approved in September 2016 and published May 2017)
  • 802.11ad Approved in December 2012
  • 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) Approved in October 2009
  • 802.11g Approved in June 2003
  • 802.11b Released in September 1999
  • 802.11-1997

Bottom Line

These standards comprise a family of specifications that started in the 1990s and continues to grow today. The 802.11 standards codify improvements that boost wireless throughput and range as well as the use of new frequencies as they become available.

They also address new technologies that reduce power consumption. The growth continues as technology advances and as noticeable, there is no letting up in creating faster, better and more easily accessible Wi-Fi.

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About The Authors

Daniel Barrett

Daniel Barrett

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