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Apple pushes three-times-faster Wi-Fi to new base station, MacBook Air laptops

Analysts expect speedier 802.11ac WiFi to surface in more Apple products, including the next iPhone

Apple has doubled down on getting faster Wi-Fi by including support for the emerging 802.11ac (also called 5G Wi-Fi) standard in its new AirPort Extreme base station, Time Capsule and MacBook Air laptops, all unveiled at its World Wide Developer Conference on Monday.

The new 802.11ac Wi-Fi draft specification -- said to be up to three times faster than 802.11n -- is already supported in the wireless routers of a number of vendors (see below), but is so far found rarely in client devices like smartphones and laptops. One new smartphone that does support 802.11ac is the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Nonetheless, Apple's newfound commitment to the spec is expected to continue to more of its products and thus expand interest in faster Wi-Fi overall, as mobile device users seek ever faster speeds for video and large files of other formats.

Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said the next-generation iPhone, expected to arrive in the fall, will probably support 802.11ac. "If anything, Apple is consistent," she said.

The new Wi-Fi standard is backwards compatible with older 802.11n routers, so a device running 802.11ac can still function at the slower 802.11n speed, she noted.

The theoretical speed of 802.11ac is 1.3 Gbps, fully three times 802.11n's top speed of 450 Mbps. The previous generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11g, supported theoretical speeds of up to 54 Mbps. Those speeds can be far lower in actual use, depending on the number of users and whether any of them are using slower Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11g.

Apple will sell its AirPort Extreme in its stores for $199 starting Wednesday.

The device is 6.6-in. high and weighs just 2.08 pounds. It supports connections over 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz and up to 50 simultaneous users. Apple also offers a free Airport Utility, updated to version 1.3.

The AirPort Time Capsule also works over 802.11ac Wi-Fi and adds a 2TB or 3TB hard drive for wireless backup. It will sell starting Wednesday in stores from $299.

Apple's newest MacBook Air laptops, starting at $999, also support 802.11ac.

The 802.11ac consumer routers on the market generally sell for between $150 and $300. Popular models are sold by NetGear, Asus, Trendnet, Buffalo and D-Link.

Several analysts noted that while 802.11ac will become more popular later this year, it is still far from highly available in public Wi-Fi hotspots. The hotspots in airports, they note, require the upgrading or replacing of hundreds of access points to allow support for faster speeds.

"I don't know any airports with 802.11ac today," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "The number of major installations using 802.11ac could probably be counted on one hand."

Still, Gold and others credited Apple with staying ahead of the innovation curve and recognizing the value of hoigh speed in-home Wi-Fi.

Support for 802.11ac was just one of a number of innovations Apple officials announced at WWDC on Monday. The moves offer insight to what it takes for a market leader like Apple to remain competitive, analysts say.

"It's harder and harder to stay ahead when you already have something successful," Gold said. "And its easier to sell hardware innovations than software."

What some customers will notice with 802.11ac is that the Wi-Fi network can be literally hundreds of times speedier than the backhaul feeding into a mall, airport, business or home. A conventional T-1 line, usually a wired copper connection, connects a business location to an Internet provider at speeds of just 1.544 Mbps, more than 500 times slower than the theoretical top 802.11ac speed.

"The choke point for Internet connections is still the backhaul, not the Wi-Fi zone inside your home," Gold said. "It's like if you are driving on the Mass Pike and 12 lanes come down to just three at the toll booth."

Unless Wi-Fi is used to support a peer-to-peer connection, with all peers using a common Wi-Fi network, 802.11ac can still face significant slow points over a backhaul link, added Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner.

Redman said that except for video and the largest files, many users won't easily notice the faster speed of 802.11ac compared to 802.11n, even though it is three times faster. "Most of the time, you probably won't notice any difference with 802.11ac," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is [email protected].

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.


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