- As the number of Wi-Fi-capable devices connecting to a health IT infrastructure grows, the importance of deploying the latest wireless technology becomes a top priority for organizations and their IT departments. With all employees from administrative workers to doctors needing constant internet access, the burden of traffic puts increased pressure on wireless network infrastructure.
Traditional Wi-Fi technology is changing as the technology connecting to them grows more advanced. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has replaced the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard with 802.11ac.
Officially approved in January 2014 in the IEEE Standards Association process, 802.11ac or wireless-AC brings new Wi-Fi technologies to the table including multi-user multi-input and multi- output (MU-MIMO), tri-band 5GHz range, and beamforming. Wireless-AC is also the first wireless standard that can potentially outperform a wired connection.
The first thing to note about changing WI-Fi standards is that not all endpoint devices are capable of utilizing 802.11ac. Only devices manufactured after January 2014 will have 802.11ac capability. In a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) scenario, 802.11ac can be utilized almost immediately because most smartphone users upgrade their devices every two years. While wireless-AC access points (APs) are backwards compatible for legacy standards like 802.11n and 802.11g, older devices will need to be replaced or upgraded to get the full benefit of what 802.11ac offers.
Bandwidth is the bit-rate available to be used by devices accessing the network. AC more than doubles the bandwidth of 802.11n, making more room for data to pass and effectively “widening the road.” More devices can access a single AP making 802.11ac ideal when users each have more than one device accessing the network. Wireless-AC is gigabit capable, but there is very little chance those speeds will be reached in an enterprise environment, mostly the result of wireless providers like Comcast and Verizon not being able to provide those speeds in most areas.
Wi-Fi technology is essentially sending and receiving messages. While it feels like a constant connection, a traditional AP can only communicate with one device at a time. When multiple users are connected to the network via the same AP, it processes these multiple requests by sending pieces of data to each device one at a time, so quickly in fact that it appears continuous to every device.
MIMO started with 802.11n and uses multiple antennas to send and receive more than one data signal at a time. With 802.11n, these multiple signals could still only be transmitted to one user at a time. MU-MIMO uses the same multi-antenna concept, but data can now be transmitted to multiple users at the same time, increasing speeds for users.
Beamforming is multi-antenna technology that focuses radio frequency (RF) by creating intersecting rings of transmission. The IEEE says that, “beamforming is a valuable technology that significantly improves coverage, reliability and data rate performance.”
Traditionally, a wireless signal is broadcast from the AP in a circle on a level plain. Devices in that circle with Wi-Fi capability are able to connect to that AP and access the internet, but once a device is outside that signal circle, it can no longer access the internet through that AP.
If a pre-MU-MIMO AP is being accessed by too many users with the bandwidth at capacity, communication between the endpoints and the APs slows down because only one device can communicate at a time. Since there aren’t devices occupying every space in an APs reach, energy is wasted broadcasting to where there is physically nothing connecting to the network. This type of broadcasting wastes both energy and significant signal strength.
Beamforming uses eight antennas (4x4 MIMO technology) to control the direction and strength of transmission. Only devices that are AC-capable are receiving signal, focusing the energy only where it’s needed. Instead of the traditional circle of signal surrounding an AP, there are individual connections being made with each client accessing the network.
The 802.11ac should have an increased effect on the evolution of healthcare technology because of the growing demand for connectivity by mobile users, guests and Wi-Fi enabled medical devices. Uninterrupted connection, focused signal strength, and wider bandwidth will be necessary as new technologies increase in number and adoption, but they won’t perform to capacity if wireless networks are not up-to-date.