About the 802.11 Wireless Network Standards

I have written many posts regarding wireless networks on Technically Easy. Some of the most popular posts deal with resetting and securing a wireless network. Wireless technology has hit the mainstream over the last few years, especially with more people buying laptops and becoming more mobile.

Obviously, security is a major concern for most, so they may tend to not invest in wireless technology. For those that do, you are presented with many different network equipment that you can use. The network equipment is advertised as supporting several of the standard wireless networking standards. In this post I will briefly discuss each standard that has been created so you have some knowledge of what it all means.

802.11 Standards

WiFi Logo

The 802.11 standards was created in 1997 by the Institute of Electical and Electroncs Engineers (IEEE). This standard is a family that includes over-the-air modulation techniques. Currently, the two most popular versions of this standard are 802.11b and 802.11g, with 802.11n starting to make headway.

As with all electronic related standards, this one continues to be modified with newer versions that extend the speed and range over the previous version. Let’s take a look at the versions that have been created up to this point.

Legacy 802.11

The first version of this standard supported network speeds of up to 2 megabits per second (Mbit/s), and operated on the 2.4 GHz band. Today, this speed is far too slow for most applications, so products that support this version are no longer being manufactured.

802.11a

This version supports a much faster network speed of 54 Mbit/s, and uses the 5 GHz band. This version was more for commercial rather than personal use. Even though the network speed was much faster than the legacy 802.11, or even the 802.11b, it had a disadvantage in range. The range of the 802.11a was much more limited than the 802.11b version because the smaller wavelength was more easily absorbed by walls and other objects.

802.11b

With the speeds of networks and the Internet increasing, the 802.11 standard was much too slow for many applications. In 1999, an expansion of the original standard, called 802.11b, was created. This standard increased the speed to 11 Mbit/s from 2 Mbit/s. It uses the same 2.4 GHz band as the legacy version. Since 802.11a and 802.11b use different frequencies, they are not compatible. There are many network devices that can use both, but they can’t use them at the same time, and each connected device must use one or the other.

802.11g

The most popular standard currently on the market is the 802.11g standard. It is the second expansion of the original 802.11 standard. This standard has a transfer speed of 54 Mbit/s, like the 802.11a standard, but uses the 2.4 GHz frequency to provide a longer range. Since it uses the 2.4 GHz frequency, it is compatible with 802.11b devices, and most devices support both standards.

802.11n

The newest standard on the market is the 802.11n version. This standard improves on the 802.11g standard in that it supports multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO). This means that instead of one antenna and wireless signals, it supports multiple antennas and signals. The biggest advantage is that it supports speeds over 100 Mbit/s (I read somewhere up to 600 Mbit/s), and has a greater range than the 802.11g standard. It can use the 5 Ghz or 2.4 Ghz frequency and is compatible with 802.11g devices. This standard will be finalized around December 2009, although you can buy 802.11n devices today.

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