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Why 2017 will be the year of blisteringly fast Wi-Fi

2017 should be a transformative year for wireless connectivity in the home and office.

We saw several products during the recent CES 2017 technology trade show in Las Vegas that not only speed up the connection between wireless devices and the internet, but fill those annoying dead spaces that, until now, wireless network coverage just couldn’t reach. That means customers will start hearing a lot about “WiGig” and “mesh networking” from here on out.

First up is the speed increase provided by the new “WiGig” wireless technology, which is also known as Wireless AD. This specification was first developed and promoted by the Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig) trade association, hence the “WiGig” nickname associated with Wireless AD devices. The specification was adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) at the tail end of 2012, which is responsible for the foundation of all wireless device connectivity.

In 2013, the Wireless Gigabit Alliance became a part of the Wi-Fi Alliance, which is the nonprofit international association that certifies wireless devices based on technology produced through the IEEE. The Wi-Fi Alliance is the group responsible for slapping the “Wi-Fi Certified” labels on wireless devices and networking products, to assure customers that its wireless capability was tested and approved.

It’s okay to play catch up

Now fast-forward to October of 2016. Many wireless devices sold on the market now such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, are based on Wireless AC technology, which is slower than the just-launched Wireless AD, but faster than the old Wireless N tech. That’s a lot of letters we know, and the new Wireless AD standard is welcomed with open arms, but it’s arrival is also a bit aggravating.

Those who are just now enjoying a Wireless AC network need not worry about gadgets becoming obsolete.

Why? Because Wireless AC’s availability on the general market is just beginning to feel “normal.” The  technology is just now becoming a standard feature in smartphones, tablets, laptops, and whatnot. But that’s just how technology goes. Once customers get the latest product, it’s obsolete. The Wi-Fi Alliance warned in late 2016 that 2017 would be the year Wireless AD devices arrived, and it wasn’t kidding.

Wireless AD’s headline feature is its third connectivity option: 60GHz. It joins the existing 5GHz and 2.4GHz choices that are already available on Wireless AC and Wireless N devices, and is capable of up to 8,000 megabits (or eight gigabits) per second. Network products supporting this 60GHz connection will use what is called beamforming technology to send direct signals to connected devices up to 33 feet away from the access point. This 60GHz band enables things not previously possible, like wireless virtual reality.

Wireless AD is just a baby, and all this speed is mostly overkill anyway

You’ll see networking solutions sold as “tri-band” throughout the year. But don’t let manufacturers fool you: tri-band doesn’t necessarily mean Wireless AD. There are routers and mesh-based networking solutions that add a second 5GHz band instead of the new 60GHz band. This makes them tri-band, but not compatible with the new Wireless AD standard.

As of this publication, there aren’t many Wireless AD routers on the market to support Wireless AD-capable laptops. We covered Netgear’s Nighthawk X10 in October, and a scan on Newegg produced only one other result: the TP-Link Talon AD7200 router. Wireless AD, it seems, is still in its infancy. But 2017 is young, and this year serves as the launch pad for Wireless AD products.

But there’s something else to keep in mind about all the speedy numbers surrounding Wireless AD. It’s mostly overkill… at least, for now. A wireless connection at 8,000 megabits per second is usually bottlenecked by your internet connection (most range from 10 to 1,000Mbps). If your internet connection provides a maximum download speed of up to 30 megabits per second, that’s all you get. Wireless AD is fast, but it won’t magically increase the speed of the ISP’s internet service.

Mesh networking is ready to make your Wi-Fi easier

But that’s enough about speed. As we said, mesh networking was a highlight at the CES 2017 trade show too. While speed is important, mesh-based networks primarily focus on wireless coverage throughout the home or office. Products based on this technology began to appear in 2016 followed by the debut of new solutions during the Las Vegas show. But, just like Wireless AD, mesh networking aims to transform the home or office network from here on out.

In mesh networking the router, and its companion nodes, appear as one connection. Devices don’t connect to one specific node in a list of available access points. Instead, the hub and nodes combine into one access point. These mesh-based solutions typically choose the best available band automatically, instead of splitting them into separate, visible bands, which you must then choose between on your devices.

Mesh networking can fix dead spots that befuddle traditional routers.

Why is this better than the standard router? Just imagine one small device broadcasting its signals in every direction. Of course, the more antennas it has, the better the reach and number of simultaneously connected devices. But range has its limits, hence the market for range extenders and routers capable of linking with other routers. And the original signal degrades as it travels away from the central router, even if a range extender is installed.

Ultimately, getting full wireless coverage in a home or office can get expensive with traditional hardware, and may even demand wired connections between routers and extenders. With mesh-based solutions, additional nodes can be purchased and easily added without the need for extra wires and bulky devices that merely “echo” the originating signals. Mesh-based networking is great for multi-floor homes and buildings, too.

CES 2017 lacked mesh-based networking products supporting the new Wireless AD standard. That may have something to do with mesh networking technology’s recent arrival. But unlike Wireless AD networking solutions, there are quite a few mesh-based systems currently on the market.

AmpliFi HD Eero Google WiFi
Three-pack: $349 $499 $299
Two-pack: n/a $349 n/a
Single unit: $129 $199 $129
Luma Linksys Velop Netgear Orbi
Three-pack: $299 $499 n/a
Two-pack: $249 $349 $399
Single unit: $149 $199 $249

Two mesh-based systems not in the charts above are the just-announced Asus HiveSpot and Asus HiveDot, the latter of which doesn’t sport a dedicated 5GHz connection installed specifically for node-to-node communication. The company has these systems listed as “coming soon,” and hasn’t revealed pricing.

Also not included in the chart is the Securifi Almond 3, which doesn’t come in a kit and costs $149 per single unit. Almond 3 units can be added to the current wireless network as nodes just like all other mesh-based networking products.

The downside to mesh networking? Well, as the charts show, mesh-based systems aren’t exactly cheap, ranging from $299 to $499 for starter kits containing three units. A lot of users are going to question if the benefit is worth the cost.

Hit turbo on your home network

It’s possible none of these advancements will peak your interest. If you live in a smaller home, or one that lacks internal walls with pesky obstructions (like plumbing), you may be well served by existing routers.

For many, though, these advancements will fix issues current routers don’t address. Even the most powerful standard routers have trouble with plumbing, appliances, and other obstructions that cause dead spots. And some struggle to stream 4K video over Wi-Fi, due to limited bandwidth.

Both problems should be fixed by the end of 2017 – if you can lay down the cash for a cutting-edge router.