The Samsung Mega becomes the first officially certified 802.11ac Wi-Fi device

The Wi-Fi Alliance this week kicked off its certification program for the latest and greatest Wi-Fi technology, 802.11ac, and Samsung was the first in line to run its mobile devices through the paces. Three variants of the new Galaxy Mega smartphone, as well as the Galaxy S 4 Active and one unidentified handset with the model number SCH-P729, were the first smartphones to get the official Wi-Fi stamp of approval.

You may be wondering why certification is just starting now. 802.11ac devices have been making their way into the market all year, preceded by chipsets and routers in 2012. But this is just the way the Wi-Fi industry works. As Alliance Marketing andProgram Management Director Kelly Davis-Felner pointed out, there have to be commercial devices available before they can be certified.

wi-fi-zone1Wi-Fi equipment makers are moving much faster than the standards bodies. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is actually still putting the finishing touches on the 802.11ac standard, so we won’t see a final spec until later this year or early next. We saw the same pattern emerge in 2007, when vendors started pumping 802.11n equipment into the market long before the IEEE settled on the final standard.

To address that problem, the Alliance launched a pre-certification program called “Draft-N,” instilling some order in the market. That’s essentially what the Alliance is doing today creating a “Draft-AC” certification, though it’s not officially calling it that.

According to Davis-Felner, this allows the Alliance to start testing for features in the 802.11ac spec that are already locked down and included in current-generation products. After the full standard is approved, it will add the remaining features to its certification profiles. For instance, the full standard will support massive 156 MHz channels, but the Alliance is currently testing a maximum channel bandwidth of 80 MHz because that’s all today’s devices can support.

The first batch of ac routers and devices will support speeds of 433 Mbps and offer more overall capacity to wireless LANs (supporting more users at faster speeds) than 802.11n. But as we start progressing into more sophisticated levels of the standard, ac will start boasting gigabit-plus speeds. Wi-Fi specialist Quantenna is already prepping chip designs that could go into the first multi-gigabit routers.

802.11ac spec chart courtesy of Meru Networks

802.11ac spec chart courtesy of Meru Networks

The Alliance has opened testing facilities in nine labs around the world and it has pre-certified multiple device reference designs, routers and chipsets from companies like Broadcom(s brcm), Qualcomm(s qcom), Realtek and Marvell(s mrvl). That gear is serving as the Alliance’s test bed for certifying end-user devices. Wi-Fi infrastructure giant Cisco Systems(s csco) was the first non-test-bed vendor to get an access point certified. The Alliance will routinely update its certified list on its website. While Cisco and Samsung may have been the first line to test their gear,  you can expect many more smartphones, tablets and routers to pass through the Alliance’s doors in the coming week, Davis-Felner said.

“AC is going into mobile and portable devices first, which is really different from the last time around,” Davis-Felner said. The early days of Draft-N certification were dominated by laptops and modems, and 802.11n chips only gradually filtered into smartphones, she said. ABI Research estimates that 40 percent of all ac devices shipped in 2013 will be handsets.

Today smartphone vendors seem to be looking at Wi-Fi the same way they view applications processors – just as new high-end phones and tablets need to have the latest quad-core chip, they also need to have the fastest Wi-Fi radio available.