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Wi-Fi Alliance promises faster Wi-Fi in new products this year

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The tech world is ready for better Wi-Fi, and this year we may start to get it. The Wi-Fi Alliance is today announcing an update to its certification program for modern Wi-Fi devices, which will require all new products to support faster speeds and for routers to do a better job of handling multiple devices at the same time.

Going forward, routers and devices that want to comply with its latest certification program will have to support three key new features: wider channel bandwidth, an additional spacial stream, and perhaps most importantly, MU-MIMO. That latest one has a horribly convoluted name, but it essentially just means that a router can send data to multiple devices at the same time.

"Capable of delivering three times the speed"

That's right: right now, routers are generally sending data to one device at a time. They switch back and forth between our devices fast enough that we don't necessarily notice — only sending a bit to each at one time — but MU-MIMO should deliver a more consistent result for everyone. Newly certified Wi-Fi routers should be capable of sending data to four devices at a time, potentially delivering a faster result when combined with other Wi-Fi improvements.

"A given device that supports all these features will be capable of delivering three times the speed of [802.11ac] devices even a year ago," says Kevin Robinson, the Wi-Fi Alliance's marketing VP.

There are obvious reasons to be optimistic about this news, but you'll have to let me throw a bit of cold water on it. That's because this isn't a change to the Wi-Fi standard, this is just a change to the Wi-Fi Alliance's certification process — and there's an important difference.

The first certified devices will appear in weeks

The Wi-Fi Alliance is a widely supported industry group backed by just about every name you'd expect, including Apple, Samsung, Intel, Microsoft, and so on. But it doesn't set the Wi-Fi standard; it just formalizes which features of the standard the industry has agreed to care about. No product has to get Wi-Fi certified. It's just a suggestion. A suggestion that companies will likely adhere to, but a suggestion nonetheless.

So how's that play out in practice? Some new products won't actually support all of these features. But many likely will — after all, there's a reason these companies are paid members of the group. And some products on sale today already do support these features, since they've technically been in the the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, all along.

With today's announcement, the Wi-Fi Alliance — and its members — are basically saying they want to start taking fuller advantage of the 802.11ac standard and directing everyone to start doing that. Robinson says we'll start to see the first of these "wave two" 802.11ac certified Wi-Fi devices appearing "in weeks." The alliance expects that they'll go on to "dominate the market within the next five years."