A wireless access point (wireless AP) is a network device that transmits and receives data over a wireless local area network (WLAN). The wireless access point serves as the interconnection point between the WLAN and a fixed wire network. Conceptually, an AP is like an Ethernet hub, but instead of relaying LAN frames only to other 802.3 stations, an AP relays 802.11 frames to all other 802.11 or 802.3 stations in the same subnet. When a wireless device moves beyond the range of one AP, it is handed over to the next AP.
Wireless access point vs. wireless router
Typically, wireless routers are used in homes and small businesses where all users can be supported by one combined AP and router. Wireless APs are used in larger businesses and venues where many APs are required to provide service to support thousands of users. The number of access points needed will increase as a function of the number of network users and the physical size of the network.
Purchasing a wireless access point
It's important to note that not all APs are alike, and not all products offer the same features and performance. Here are a few must-have features and capabilities that are of particular interest to enterprises:
Nondisruptive scalability - APs should be supported transparently and be backwards-compatible.
Dual Gigabit-Ethernet ports - Every dual-radio AP should have two GbE ports.
Support for dense deployments - Dense deployments require additional APs.
Enhanced management functions - Management functions should improve productivity and total cost of ownership, as well as throughput and reliability.
802.11ax access points
802.11ax access points provide 802.11ac capabilities, but can also tell an Internet of Things (IoT) client how long to sleep before reconnecting to the network. For example, it might tell a smart thermostat that doesn't generate a lot of traffic to shut off its radio for 23 hours, 59 minutes and 40 seconds, waking up just once daily to send a temperature and humidity update, before going back to sleep.
When comparing 802.11ax vs. 802.11ac, other significant developments include:
- The use of orthogonal frequency-division multiple access, which lets an AP service multiple wireless clients at different bandwidth requirements simultaneously.
- Bidirectional improvements in multiuser multiple input, multiple output radio processes.
- A feature called basic service set (BSS) coloring, which deals with co-channel interference by adding a field to the wireless frame that overcomes issues associated with same-frequency cell coexistence.
In this Buying Decisions series, learn how to buy locally managed WLAN products and cloud-controlled wireless LAN products, how to make the business case for cloud-managed WLAN, and how to determine which cloud-controlled WLAN products are the best suited for your needs.
Cisco's wireless LAN controllers are used by a variety of enterprises and organizations. Learn more about Cisco wireless LAN controllers in this product overview series. Other products reviewed include: Aerohive's HiveManager, Cisco's Aironet, Aruba wireless controllers and access points, Meraki wireless access points and Ruckus Zone AP products.