This new Wi-Fi technology might not be for you

The IT industry is abuzz about MU-MIMO, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense for every business. Here’s what you need to know before investing in new access points.

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If you’ve been wondering whether or not MU-MIMO would be a good addition for your organization’s network infrastructure, here’s your answer: probably not. This new Wi-Fi technology solves a problem that most businesses don’t have.

Short for multiuser-multiple input, multiple output, MU-MIMO promises to make Wi-Fi networks more efficient. Essentially, it allows a router to communicate with multiple smartphones, laptops and other devices all at the same time.

That’s different from single-user (SU) MIMO technology, which confines routers to connecting with each device one at a time — albeit at such a fast rate that users generally don’t notice significant delays in the voice, video and other data streaming to their wireless devices.

The argument for MU-MIMO is that as people use more and more Wi-Fi-connected items, standard SU-MIMO routers will become overwhelmed and incapable of providing sufficiently fast connections. Network latency will increase and users will start to experience substantial delays.

MU-MIMO limitations

That’s the idea. In reality, MU-MIMO has several limitations that, in turn, limit the technology’s value. For one, there are only a few MU-MIMO-compatible devices on the market. Unless the phones, computers and other equipment in the enterprise speak MU-MIMO, the technology doesn’t provide the promised hike in network efficiency.

That will change, of course. Device-makers are bound to increase their output of MU-MIMO endpoint equipment. But here’s another problem: MU-MIMO is designed to make the network more efficient for downstream connectivity only. For upstream connections, devices and routers would still use the old SU model.

As Wireless Design magazine pointed out, downstream connectivity used to be the main concern for network managers worried about network congestion. But now, an increasing number of people use cloud services, so traffic patterns have changed. Just as much data travels upstream as downstream in many a corporate network. In order to be truly useful, MU-MIMO would have to provide enhanced network efficiency for uploads as well as downloads.

What’s more, Tom’s Guide says “MU-MIMO … aims to solve a problem that may not really exist.” The publication suggests that network latency usually results from simply having too little bandwidth. Boost the feed coming from the carrier and you fix the problem. “MU-MIMO has promise, but it’s not a must-have feature just yet.”

Just right for certain organizations

MU-MIMO is far from useless, however — it addresses network management problems for certain organizations. It could benefit companies that have a lot of wireless users who rely on bandwidth-intensive applications, particularly those with a growing user base. No doubt, the technology makes Wi-Fi more efficient, so businesses in this situation will have an easier time accommodating more workers and heavier network workloads.

But since there aren’t many MU-MIMO endpoint devices on the market, there’s no need to rush out and buy access points that have it. And the fact that MU-MIMO makes downstream traffic flow more easily — at a time when upstream traffic is on the rise — means the technology might not solve the actual problem you face as a network manager in charge of enterprise communications infrastructure.

So stay the course. Continue to monitor traffic patterns on your organization’s network for signs that it’s becoming too congested, particularly in terms of downstream connectivity. If latency is up and the quality of users’ connections is down, MU-MIMO might be the solution. If that doesn’t describe your network reality, set MU-MIMO aside for now.

Photo courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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