First 802.11ac gear inaugurates summer of Wi-Fi

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't use this space to simply describe a new product, in this case two new products — the new Buffalo AirStation WZR-D1800H ($179.99) 802.11ac router and its sibling, the WLI-H4-D1300 wireless media bridge (also $179.99), which went on sale last week.

But I'll make an exception for these two products, the first commercially available Wi-Fi 802.11ac gear. Aka "gigabit Wi-Fi," these and other pending 802.11ac gear promises to deliver Wi-Fi transmitted content at between 1.3 and 1.75 Gbps, around twice as fast as today's fastest 802.11n routers.

Why the exception? Because these products portend a momentous change in our wireless communications lives.

I'll explain this hyperbolic pronouncement — and what a "wireless media bridge" is — after the jump.

Major changes are coming to Wi-Fi that will make it faster, automatic and far more ubiquitous.

There is Hotspot 2.0 aka Certified Passpoint, which will make it as easy to connect to secure local Wi-Fi hotspots as it is for your smartphone to pass from cell to cell. The first Certified Passpoint hotspots are due to launch sometime this fall.

There is Super Wi-Fi, which could create indoor hotspots with five times the range of current 802.11n (albeit at slower speeds than "n" Wi-Fi), or outdoor hotspots that could stretch over — wait for it — 40 miles. Four Super Wi-Fi hotspots are already up and running.

Beyond this new technology, cell carriers and others are furiously trying to build more and more hotspots (including Hotspot 2.0-enabled) to try and take the pressure off the increasingly crowded cellular networks. According to an outfit called Greenpacket, "[t]he proliferation of Wi-Fi enabled devices and growth in Wi-Fi hotspot deployment is predicted to rise 350% by 2015."

And then there's 802.11ac.

Of AC Routers…

Gigabit 802.11ac Wi-Fi broadcasts over 23 channels in the relatively vacant 5GHz spectrum. Using higher, emptier frequencies ensures more consistent wireless connections and fewer dead spots over 250-300 feet, even through walls and floors that may stymie the transmissions from current 802.11n routers.

There's one problem with Buffalo being first — they're alone. Almost.

After all, an 802.11ac router, no matter how speedy the transmission speeds, is useless. You need a receiver, matching gear — laptops, connected HDTVs, smartphones, Blu-ray players, tablets, videogame consoles, media streamers, etc. — that can take advantage of the speedy gigabit transmissions.

The 802.11ac standard isn't quite official — the final official standard will likely be published in the fall. But not having the final standard hasn't stopped Buffalo — it made the same "first to market" splash when the 802.11n certification was close enough to move to silicon (i.e. make the chipsets) back in mid-2006.

And the lack of final 802.11ac certification won't stop the usual router suspects — Netgear, D-Link, Belkin, et al — from releasing similar pre-certified 802.11ac router gear in the coming weeks and months.

Because these AC routers will be pre-certified, they won't be able to display the official Wi-Fi logo, so they may be hard to spot on store shelves. The largest text on Buffalo's box proclaims "AC1300/N900" and "Extreme Performance" — not exactly product descriptive — with "Gigabit Dual Band Router" in a much smaller and thinner font, and an almost invisible "Wi-Fi" buried under a red "5G" logo in the bottom corner.

And, it also means that we likely won't see receiving Wi-Fi gear — laptops, connected HDTVs, smartphones, Blu-ray players, tablets, videogame consoles, media streamers, etc. — for a few months, maybe not even until next year. More expensive hardware makers are usually a little more cautious about selling pre-certified devices.

…And AC Bridges

A bridge solves the one-way AC transmission problem. You plug the bridge into an AC outlet near your AV stack, then use Ethernet cables to connect your AV gear to the bridge and, voila! — gigabit transmission speeds at both ends.

Why would you go through all this rigmarole? A gigabit connection means movies you stream over your home network on Netflix or Hulu or whatever will load faster, and buffer, stall or quit far less frequently.

Wouldn't that be nice?

It'll be nicer, of course, when you don't need the bridge since Buffalo's router-bridge pairing will run you $360, plus all those short Ethernet cables. If you're going wired to squeeze the most glitch-free performance from your Internet-connected AV gear, a HomePlug powerline with a gigabit switch solution is both faster and cheaper than Buffalo's 802.11ac combo.

As it was with the N standard, AC gigabit and all these other Wi-Fi changes will take several years to manifest themselves into a critical mass of products that will make them a normal part of our tech lives.

But, as with all things time related, tomorrow will be here far sooner than we think.

For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
at @dvice or find us on Facebook