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From 2.4-GHz to 5-GHz: switch with confidence

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The 2.4-GHz spectrum is reaching its limits for Wi-Fi networking.  But despite the availability of 5-GHz, many IT administrators still believe switching is complicated, favouring instead a 50:50 network design.

According to Gartner, there will be more than 20 billion connected devices by 2020.  2.4-GHz is the original standard from 1997.  It provides just three channels and is now congested, causing interference and dropped connections.  If it is to support the ever-increasing volume of connected devices, the industry needs to move beyond a technology developed in the era of the cassette player.

Traditional APs have a fixed configuration, with one radio on the slower 2.4-GHz band, and the second radio on high-speed 5-GHz band.  This design is intended to support both older and newer Wi-Fi clients at the same time.  However, 80% or more of today’s Wi-Fi device population supports the newer, faster 5-GHz technology.  This creates a suboptimal situation if 50% of your infrastructure is dedicated to supporting just 20% of your clients.  To correct this imbalance, network managers can configure their Wi-Fi networks to allow for a higher density of 5-Ghz devices, while still supporting 2.4-Ghz.  No wasted radios, no wasted infrastructure.

While IT admins may not be ready to make the switch, devices are – ninety per cent of phones, laptops, and tablets are already 5 GHz-capable.  Thankfully, 5-GHz offers eight times more capacity and is in reality easier to deploy.  It supports far more data, is the only band that can leverage the 802.11ac standard and – with up to 24 channels – is significantly less congested.

Half-hearted deployment

The latest chipsets support both bands and are much more cost-effective.  While integrating 5-GHz into consumer devices has been a no-brainer for vendors, the same cannot be said for the enterprise.

Many believe that installing dual-radio access points provides enough 5-GHz coverage.  Others are ‘adapting’ by switching off their 2.4-GHz radios.  In reality, neither option will work – 5-GHz needs a new configuration.

The 50:50 ratio is often deployed where network administrators do not have a clear picture of the capability and number of devices accessing the network.  Network management tools tend to display association tables rather than client capabilities, which can mean hosting far more 5-GHz clients than expected.  This causes 5-GHz radios to become oversubscribed, resulting in poor service and dropped connections.

Committing to 5-GHz

The greatest barrier to 5-GHz adoption appears to be more about misconception than technicality.  IT admins want their networks to be flexible, but designs need to be adapted to the new generation of users.  Choosing the right Wi-Fi network requires a carefully thought-out strategy. 2.4-GHz is not going away all together, but it was not created to support the volume enabled by today’s ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity.

IT admins need to ask whether the evolving demands of the network warrant giving the 2.4-GHz band 50 per cent of the access point radios.  Can it provide the performance required as more devices crowd into this band?

For many businesses the answer to this questions is no.  Some level of 2.4-GHz support is undoubtedly still required, but over time its limited capacity will make it increasingly inadequate.  A well-planned network is one planned for the future.  A few years is the same as a lifetime in technology; an enterprise needs the flexibility to see it through not just this generation of networking, but the next.


Dirk Gates

Dirk Gates

Dirk Gates is the founder of high-density Wi-Fi specialist Xirrus. Gates has a track record of success evolving high-tech startups into a world class, publicly traded companies. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from California State University at Northridge and an MBA from Pepperdine University.

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