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Wi-Fi is about to get a lot faster, more reliable

| Friday, June 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

YouTube videos stopping and starting? Spreadsheets taking an eternity to upload? Connections suddenly dropping?

Many of those Wi-Fi woes could soon come to an end.

An industry group last week began certifying products capable of running on a faster and more reliable wireless network technology. It marked the unofficial beginning of the next generation of Wi-Fi.

Contrary to popular belief, many of the connection problems that home users encounter are not related to their broadband service but rather to Wi-Fi routers.

The new technology — 802.11ac — has the potential to be up to four times as fast as the current standard 802.11n technology. Smartphones, computers and routers with the new technology are hitting store shelves, though industry experts don't expect average consumers to start picking up the devices until the holiday shopping season or early next year.

The technical improvements bring Wi-Fi up to par with the sweeping changes in the home entertainment industry. The number of Wi-Fi-connected devices in American households has doubled during the past five years, according to Wakefield Research.

Smartphones, tablets and even appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines compete with televisions, gaming consoles and laptops for a share of a finite network bandwidth. Increasingly, many of those devices also are displaying hours of video a day, putting incredible demand on the network.

The fifth generation of Wi-Fi tackles those problems by increasing speed limits and moving to a new highway, from the congested lanes of the 2.4-gigahertz frequency band to a more open 5-gigahertz spectrum.

The changes should mean that routers will be able to accommodate more devices at one time and provide better coverage throughout a home or office space. In apartments or areas crowded with other electronics, the new “highway” offers the promise of less interference, meaning connections shouldn't randomly drop, particularly if the consumer is using a 2.4-gigahertz cordless phone.

“We expect that the users will see a significant increase in the performance of their applications,” said Greg Ennis, technical director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The trade association owns the Wi-Fi trademark, and it must say that a product works correctly with other Wi-Fi certified products before a device can carry the official Wi-Fi seal. Ennis said the start of the alliance's certification process would unleash a flood of products onto the market capable of running 802.11ac.

But the improvements won't come cheap, at least initially. Some uncertified routers that support the new technology are available. Most of the 802.11ac routers cost more than $150, compared with a typical cost of $50 for an older device.

A second wave of “ac” routers should reach stores by early 2014, bringing the price of the earlier ones down. But the best time to buy might be the middle of next year when prices for the second batch are expected to drop to about $100.

One of the key metrics consumers should look at is the number of simultaneous users a router can handle. Known by the acronym MU-MIMO, the technology allows a router to send data to multiple devices more efficiently.

Earlier this month, Apple announced that its newest MacBook Air laptop would include the new Wi-Fi technology. The company's AirPort Extreme Base Station and AirPort Time Capsule also will notch higher speeds. The base station comes with a new feature known as “beamforming,” which is an optional part of 802.11ac. Beamforming automatically optimizes a Wi-Fi signal's path to deliver faster speeds to a particular device.

Everything that's certified as 802.11ac will work with older gadgets. But to take advantage of the faster speeds and wider bandwidth, both ends of a transmission must have the new technology. Older computers can be upgraded using an 802.11ac USB adapter.

The last major Wi-Fi upgrade began in 2007, with the introduction of the 802.11n technology. “N” was the successor to “a,” “b” and “g.”

By the end of the year, the Wi-Fi Alliance expects to start certifying the more niche “ad” technology. Its optimal use is limited to small areas with dozens of devices connecting to a network, such as classrooms or a small, public hot spot.

Why are letters being doubled up now? The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which oversees wireless standards, used “o” through “z” to denote minor technical changes since the launch of “n.”

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