Is 802.11ac faster than gigabit Ethernet?

If you’ve been shopping around for 802.11ac gear, you might wonder about the print on some of the boxes. Is 802.11ac faster than gigabit Ethernet?

Yes, sometimes it can be. But it’s probably not hurting you too badly just yet.

The speeds you see printed on the box, you see, are theoretical. Under the best conditions, yes, you can get speeds higher than 1000 megabits. But you’re not always going to have ideal conditions. Your devices can talk to each other at that speed, but they might not both have ideal connections.

Network speeds in practice

In practice, my 802.11ac gear typically tops out in the 800-850 megabit range, even though my router is capable of 1.3 gigabits.

Of course, the wired connection between your router and your modem, and your router and the rest of your switches (if you have multiple switches) can be a limiting factor. If you get better wireless connections than I do, your data transmission slows down when the computer has to talk to something on the wire. That’s a bit of a slowdown if you have gigabit everywhere, though still not too bad.

But if you have some 100-megabit still lying around like I did until very recently, you’ll notice. And that brings up a problem.

The elephant in the room

Unfortunately, some of the least expensive 802.11ac routers don’t have gigabit ports in them. That means they slow down to 100 megabits every time they talk to anything over the wire. So make sure you get a gigabit-capable 802.11ac router. Otherwise, you’re completely wasting its capability. Since many wired Internet connections are faster than 100 megabits now, these inexpensive routers impose a cap on your connection.

As time goes on, even gigabit wired connections will become a limiting factor. We’ll need to talk about 5 or even 10-gigabit wired connections and CAT6 cabling. But for now that seems a bit far off. It’s premature to be talking about 10 gigs when some vendors are selling underpowered 100-megabit 802.11ac routers.

Upgrading to 802.11ac

So for the best 802.11ac experience, you need to do more than just buy whatever 802.11ac router happens to be on sale this weekend. You need to get a router with gigabit capability. You also need to make sure the router is able to talk to as much as possible on your network at gigabit speeds. If your router and modem are nearby, that’s not a problem. Just use the cable that came with the router to connect them.

If you have an extensive wired network, replace your switches with gigabit switches. TP-Link switches are cheap and pretty good. And if you don’t have at least CAT5e wiring in your walls, you may need to rewire, at least for your most important connections.

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