Is Wi-Fi finally ‘fast enough?’

The answer to this question about Wi-Fi is surprisingly complicated

Wi-Fi has become so ubiquitous over the past decade and a half that we talk about it – and complain about it – like it’s part of the weather. Be honest, average user – the first thing you think when your connection starts acting up is “damn it, what’s wrong with the Wi-Fi now?”

But the degree to which Wi-Fi is likely to be the limiting factor for any given connection is shrinking. Wi-Fi has evolved quickly over the past few years, so much so that it can seem like wireless is outstripping wired networks in terms of raw capability.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD:Why one Cisco shop is willing to give Wi-Fi startup Mist a shot +

So is Wi-Fi, finally, “fast enough?” The answer, unsurprisingly, is pretty complicated.

Maximum data rates for Wi-Fi, outlined in the IEEE’s 802.11 standards, have long outstripped the average American’s home internet connection. Data collected for Akamai’s State of the Internet reports show that the national average broadband connection provided about 3.7Mbps of throughput in 2007 – well below the theoretical maximum of 54Mbps offered by even 802.11g, a version of the standard first published in 2003. (The latest figure for average U.S. broadband connection speed is 15.3Mbps, as of the first quarter of 2016.)

wi fi

In practice, however, production hardware rarely comes close to the theoretical maximum throughput. Multiple clients, interference, and a host of other issues means that the actual rate at which wireless access points can move information around is far below the theoretical limit.

Greg Ferro, a well-known networking analyst who blogs at Ethereal Mind, told Network World that the concept of “speed,” as applied to wireless networks, is a lot more complicated than it is for wired ones.

“[It] isn't just the rate at which data moves from handset to [access point],” he said. “It’s also about duty cycles and availability because the wireless spectrum is shared. Faster data rates means that frequencies are less used over time and thus more devices are able to use a given base station.”

Not just speeds and feeds

What this also means is that higher data rates can help contribute to modern Wi-Fi’s biggest problem – density.

Joel Coehoorn, who is the director of IT at York College in Nebraska, says there are three key problems that make rated maximum Wi-Fi throughput figures largely useless. First, the stated maximum speeds are frequently the product of unusual configurations that would be unsuitable for use in the real world, and that most client devices aren’t set up to handle them anyway.

Second, many people don’t realize that an access point has to support the lowest data rate client on its network, he noted. If, for example, a router capable of 150Mbps is supporting four clients, all of which are trying to download a 100MB file, the client that’s only capable of 24Mbps will limit the other clients to that speed, since the router will have to “speak 24Mbps” during that download.

“This one download which could have taken only about five seconds worth of air time on the channel now used six times as much,” he says.

Finally, of course, multiple clients will consume their own slices of bandwidth, dividing the possible throughput of a given connection by the number of clients on an AP – a problem that’s mitigated with wired connections, which are generally full-duplex.

For Coehoorn, while technological improvements have made Wi-Fi considerably faster and better able to handle the demands of its ubiquity, it’s still going to be a bottleneck in certain situations.

“Older clients, and fundamental limitations will continue to mean wired networks outperform wireless, even when the wireless has a higher raw data rate,” he says.

More Wi-Fi innovations to come

Still, even if the latest generation of Wi-Fi devices haven’t become the worry-free wonder-hardware that the more enthusiastic marketing efforts suggest, that isn’t to say that great strides haven’t been made. The beam-forming and multi-user capabilities in 802.11ac Wave 2 mean that technology could remain the standard for quite a long time. (Wave 2 gear boasts a theoretical maximum throughput of up to 3.47Gbps, compared to Wave 1’s 1.3Gbps, thanks mostly to the aforementioned beamforming technology and the use of wider channels.)

Craig Mathias, a wireless expert and Network World contributor, says that fully optimized wireless implementations that use 802.11ac Wave 2 gear should be able to handle most workloads for the next five years or so. However, he cautioned, demand can be difficult to predict.

“[A]dding new [access points], denser deployments, and more efficient management and analytics will be on the shopping lists of most network managers,” Mathias says. “We're not to set-and-forget just yet.”

And Mike Leibovitz, director of the office of the CTO at Wi-Fi vendor Extreme Networks, concurs, saying that the desire for better and faster among CIOs is pushing demand higher.

“Certainly the customers I talk to, and others in the industry, people are always interested in putting more cars on the highway and seeing how fast they can go,” he says. “It seems today that most conversations, definitely with higher people in organizations … they’re certainly more focused on the experience, and what they can do on top of the infrastructure.”

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jon Gold

Network World
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?