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.
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.)
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.
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