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Of course, devices with the new IEEE 802.11ac standard will be backward compatible, allowing older Wi-Fi products to interoperate seamlessly. (Older products, however, won't be able to take advantage of the increased speeds of the new system.) Products with the new standard are expected to become available in the third quarter of 2012, initially in home networking devices such as wireless routers/access points. In the fourth quarter, notebooks and laptops containing IEEE 802.11ac adapters are expected.

Mobile phones equipped with IEEE 802.11ac chips will probably be on the shelves in 2013. That's important because, although Wi-Fi was initially created in the 1990s with computers in mind, today there are many more mobile phones than computers using Wi-Fi. What's more, growth rates in mobile equipment far outstrip those for traditional computing equipment.

Mobile phone users appreciate Wi-Fi because in addition to being free, it's usually faster than their carrier's 3G or 4G network. In fact, due to the popularity of mobile applications such as Skype and FaceTime, some mobile phone owners use Wi-Fi for all of their communications needs, including simple phone calls. But even carriers understand the importance of wireless because it allows them to offload certain kinds of data— video, for example—from their already saturated networks.

Because IEEE 802.11ac transfers files so much more quickly, wireless chips will be much more power-efficient than those found in phones today. Mobile phone users will thus be able to go longer between battery rechargings than they would if they were transferring equivalent amounts of data on today's Wi-Fi networks.

Being mainly spurred by the explosion of media content, the transition to IEEE 802.11ac is expected to be faster than the transitions from earlier generations of Wi-Fi standards.

As in the past, the new network standard will at first be found in higher-end products. But before long, virtually all new Wi-Fi products will likely be based on the IEEE 802.11ac standard, just as nearly all Wi-Fi products on sale today are based on IEEE 802.11n.

WHY IEEE 802.11ac?

Although there are many benefits of IEEE 802.11ac technology, it was developed with three main features in mind—video streaming, data syncing, and backup.

Video Streaming

PCs may have started out as "computers," but increasingly, we are using our PCs—not to mention our mobile phones and tablets—as convenient substitutes for TVs. Video entertainment has become one of the most popular use of electronic devices, so much so that video content from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and similar services now constitutes most of the Wi-Fi traffic.

What's in a Name? Sometimes, Nothing At All

The "ac" in "IEEE 802.11ac" doesn't really stand for anything. In fact, the standard got its name just by standing in line.

Wi-Fi standards are developed by scores of electronics companies working together under the auspices of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in an ongoing project called IEEE 802.11. (Insiders pronounce that "eight-oh-two-doteleven.") Each technical paper released by the group is given a letter suffix; the one setting forth the specs for IEEE 802.11g came out in 2003, followed by IEEE 802.11n in 2007. After reaching "z," the papers started over with "aa." Most of the papers between IEEE 802.11n and IEEE 802.11ac involved intricate technical matters, rather than a new networking standard meant for widespread use.

But video requires a great deal of bandwidth, many times more than does music. And so, watching video over current Wi-Fi networks can be a frustrating experience.

For example, it's common for the picture to freeze because the wireless network simply can't keep up. The problem becomes much worse the further you are from your Wi-Fi access point.

And, when different members of the household are watching different programs, each on their own computer, mobile phone, or tablet, video streaming can come to a near standstill.

But because it is so much faster than current networks, an IEEE 802.11ac network can easily handle the video needs of an entire household, even when dad, mom, and the kids are watching different programs in different rooms. The quality of the video can be better, too. The simplest IEEE 802.11ac network can transmit data over short distances—across a room, for example—at 433 Mbps (using a single antenna and 80 MHz bandwidth). That's enough to transmit high-definition Blu-ray Disc movies, which have a much higher video quality than most streaming Web videos.Because IEEE 802.11ac will handily keep up with video traffic, consumer electronics companies are expected to use it as the basis of a new generation of well-designed, easy-to-use living room video products. Watching streaming Web video on a big-screen living room TV is currently something of an "experts only" affair, because these products are often designed for advanced users. But IEEE 802.11ac is expected to herald the arrival of living room video products that will make enjoying streaming Web video as easy as watching cable TV is today.

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