Asus rides the 2nd Wave of 802.11ac atop its new Wi-Fi router

Asus unveiled a new 802.11ac router at CES in Las Vegas on Sunday. I know, big whoop right? The newest and fastest Wi-Fi technology has been on the market for over a year — 802.11ac has already taken off in the enterprise and home router market, and it’s showing up in a growing number of laptops and even some smartphones. What’s so special about this Asus router?

The RT-AC87U contains an advanced Quantenna chipset, making it the first commercially available router to support Wave 2 of 802.11ac. That chip not only boosts Wi-Fi speeds to an impressive potential 1.7 Gbps, but also includes a number of technical tweaks that ensure more users can access those higher capacities simultaneously.

Wave 2’s biggest new trick is a technique called multi-user multiple-input-multiple-output, or multi-user MIMO. MIMO has been a key component of Wi-Fi for some time, and in short it allows wireless networks to double, triple or quadruple their capacity by transmitting multiple parallel streams of data over the same spectrum. That sounds great, but the way that technology has been implemented in Wi-Fi networks it’s left a lot to be desired.

802.11ac spec chart courtesy of Meru Networks

802.11ac spec chart courtesy of Meru Networks

First off, 802.11n and Wave 1 802.11ac networks can only transmit those multiple streams to a single user at any given time. That wouldn’t be a problem if devices were capable of receiving multiple streams but unfortunately most do not. The result is the typically connection speeds on today’s 802.11ac networks are a mere fraction of the 1.3 Gbps advertised. Critics of Wave 1 technologies like Quantenna are fond of saying that in practice Wave 1 802.11ac technologies are really no better than the 802.11n technologies that preceded them.

Wave 2’s multi-user MIMO, however, can send those different spatial streams to different devices simultaneously. So while your smartphone or laptop may only be capable of 200-400 Mbps, that doesn’t mean the remaining 1 Gbps of capacity goes to waste. Other devices on the same access point can tap that bandwidth.

Here’s another way of putting it: An 802.11ac network is a four-lane highway, but Wave 1 networks can only let a single car onto that highway at any given moment. A Wave 2 network could let three or four cars onto that highway simultaneously, making much more efficient use of the capacity at its disposal.

While we might be entering the age of gigabit wireless, it will take a while before laptops, smartphones and tablets are capable of establishing a 1 Gbps-plus connection on any given network. But with Wave 2 networks we can actually achieve gigabit — and eventually multigigabit — capacity levels on Wi-Fi networks.

That ultimately will mean far more efficient networks, where multiple dozens of people will be able to maintain truly fast connections while connected to the same router. In enterprise and public-access networks where hundreds of people are vying for the same limited Wi-Fi resources, that’s nothing to scoff at.