802.11ac: It’s still hard to find, but it’s fast

Three years ago a new Wifi technology debuted promising breakneck speeds that would put our old Wifi technologies to shame. Called 802.11ac, this new networking standard was supposed, at a minimum, to double the speeds over older 802.11n technologies and eventually support multi-gigabit connections. OpenSignal felt it was time to take a look at just how far 802.11ac has come and whether it’s delivering on those promises.

Fortunately we don’t have to make wild guesses. In addition to collecting billions of measurements from cellular networks, OpenSignal’s crowdsourcing app collects plenty of data on Wifi connections, and our WifiMapper app plots the location and quality of public hotspots and private access points around the world. We’re able to drill down into measurements our users have taken from millions of Wifi enabled devices around the world.

We looked at how widespread 802.11ac has become by tracking the amount of time our smartphone users spent connected 802.11ac networks as opposed to other types of Wifi links. The chart below shows the top 10 countries ranked by 802.11ac penetration. The percentages represent each 802.11 technology’s share of overall Wifi connections on smartphones. So in the case of the U.S. , 7.9% of Wifi sessions we tracked were connected via 802.11ac networks and 77.8% of Wifi sessions went over 802.11n networks.

This chart shows the proportion of WIfi sessions made through 802.11ac and 802.11n connections. The remaining percentages are connections made through other 802.11 technologies. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

This chart shows the proportion of Wifi sessions made through 802.11ac and 802.11n connections. The remaining percentages are connections made through other 802.11 technologies. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

As you can see even in the countries ranked highest, 802.11ac connections are still few and far between. Norway had the highest percentage, but 802.11ac still only accounted for 11.4% of Wifi session time. And those numbers quickly fell off. Outside of our top 10 countries, 802.11ac accounts for less than 5% of Wifi use.

It’s important to keep in mind that in order to make a connection both the smartphone and the router have to support the new Wifi standard, so these numbers don’t give us any kind of absolutes about the number of 802.11ac devices out there. But they do give a fairly good indication of how prevalent the technology is becoming in our everyday mobile lives. Right now 802.11ac isn’t making a big impact, but if the take-up of its predecessor technology is any indication, it could make a much bigger impact quite soon. As the chart shows, 802.11n now accounts for well more than 60% of all Wifi use in the more advanced wireless countries in the world. That’s quite impressive considering the first certified 802.11n phones only appeared in 2010.

Next we looked at average 802.11ac speeds globally, and what we found probably isn’t that surprising. The average 802.11ac connection was at least twice as fast as any connection on an earlier generation technology. That average was 32.4 Mbps, which is hardly pushing gigabit speeds, but then again, the term “gigabit wireless” was always a bit of red herring. While the 802.11ac specification does include configurations that could theoretically attain speeds over 6 Gbps, those types of configurations aren’t in our smartphones. Our single-antenna handheld devices never even get near a gigabit. But the biggest factor impacting speed isn’t the technical standard used; it’s the broadband connection at the other end of the Wifi access point.

This chart shows the average internet speeds OpenSignal smartphone users measured over different types of Wifi connections. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

This chart shows the average internet speeds OpenSignal smartphone users measured over different types of Wifi connections. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

Even if you were to establish a 400 Mbps connection between your phone and your router, if your broadband connection maxes out at 25 Mbps, then the fastest internet connection you could see would be 25 Mbps. While Wifi technology certainly plays a part in the speeds we’re measuring, the quality of wired broadband speed is likely playing a bigger one. If you’re going to go through the trouble of upgrading to an 802.11ac router, you likely already have a fast broadband connection to back it up.

One thing that did surprise us in our data was that 802.11a actually came out faster than 802.11n in our measurements, even though the latter is a newer generation technology capable of much higher bandwidth. The explanation likely involves 802.11a’s broad adoption in enterprise networking. Big businesses tend to keep their internal Wifi networks private, to manage interference well and to have powerful fiber links to the internet. That could translate into a much better Wifi experience even if the technology used is a bit dated.

Finally, we tallied up all of the devices in our database that connected to an 802.11ac network and found 124 different smartphone models that supported the technology. There’s no question that the 802.11ac is becoming a common feature in new phones. The device that made the most use of that feature? That would be the Nexus 6P. Google’s latest Android phone spent an astonishing 45% of its time on Wifi connected via 802.11ac links. Apparently the type of tech-savvy consumer that invests in Google’s Android showcase phone is the same type of consumer that invests in an 802.11ac network.

This certainly won’t be our last look at 802.11ac and other Wifi technologies. We’re keeping a close eye on 802.11ac’s progress around the globe, and as we gather more and better data on Wifi in general we plan to offer up more insights. We encourage you to lend us a hand by downloading our WifiMapper app. Not only will it help you identify Wifi hotspots in your area, but it will help us map out the global Wifi landscape.

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29 Responses to 802.11ac: It’s still hard to find, but it’s fast

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  9. jgutix says:

    I’m using the app(OpenSignal) but how do I know if I’m using wifi AC? or is it possible to know with wifimapper?

    • Kevin Fitchard says:

      Sorry jgutix, right now we don’t have anything in the app that tracks the types of connections. We actually have to figure it out be analyzing the types and configurations of channels used to make the connection.

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  28. Jackdaniels says:

    Technologies keep moving on the way of development fast enough. It makes it to where people should keep up with them in order to be in the loop with what is going on. Thank you for sharing another informative article.

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