Wi-Fi is a catch-all term. In a sense, it is very precise as it explains a specific method used to connect to the Internet. Upon closer inspection however, it becomes clear that the term isn’t helpful if you’re trying to troubleshoot Wi-Fi problems.
There are a lot of different types of Wi-Fi standards used by routers and laptops, and to make matters worse, devices don’t typically complain when a sub-optimal Wi-Fi connection is made because of mis-matched Wi-Fi standards. You’ll only notice an issue when the speed and reliability of the connection isn’t as solid as you’d expected. You’ll need to investigate the problem yourself to fix it – and that means knowing a thing or two about Wi-Fi standards.
The Cast & Crew: Wi-Fi Standards
First things first – let’s take a gander at the Wi-Fi standards that exist. These standards were created by an organization known as the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade association consisting of companies interested in promoting a common standard for wireless Internet connections.
IEEE 802.11 — The original! Created in 1997, this now-defunct standard supported a blazing fast maximum connection speed of megabits per second. Devices using this haven’t been made for over a decade and won’t work with today’s equipment.
IEEE 802.11a — Created in 1999, this version of Wi-Fi works on the 5 GHz band. This was done with the hope of encountering less interference, since many devices (like most wireless phones) use the 2.4 GHz band as well. 802.11a is fairly quick too, with maximum data rates topping out at 54 megabits per second. However, the 5GHz frequency has more difficulty with objects that are in the signal’s path, so the range is often poor.
IEEE 802.11b — Also created in 1999, this standard uses the more typical 2.4 GHz band and can achieve a maximum speed of 11 megabits per second. 802.11b was the standard that kick-started Wi-Fi’s popularity.
IEEE 802.11g — Designed in 2003, the 802.11g standard upped the maximum data rate to 54 megabits per second while retaining usage of the reliable 2.4 GHz band. This resulted in widespread adoption of the standard. Wireless g remains common even today, as it is adequately fast and routers lacking support of the new n standard are incredibly cheap.
IEEE 802.11n — The newest Wi-Fi standard, n was actually introduced in 2009. It’s been adopted slowly, but it now common on routers and laptops. 802.11n can operate at both 2.4GHz and 5 GHz and it supports multi-channel usage. Each channel offers a maximum data rate of 150 megabits per second, which means the maximum data rate of the standard is 600 megabits per second. However, this requires hardware support, and I have yet to see a Wireless n router with more than three channels. The support must be on both ends as well, so you can’t make use of a dual or tri-channel router if your laptop only supports a single channel.
Navigating the Legacy
Obviously, two devices that use the same Wi-Fi standard won’t have any issues connecting to each other and achieving a respectable data rate (no problems related to the standard, at least). The issues come from attempting to connect two devices that use different standards. This is rather common – indeed, it’s probably more common today than it has ever been before.
Let’s start with 802.11 a, which was unique for its time because it uses the 5 GHz band and ONLY the 5 GHz band. Because of this, it can’t form a connection with 802.11b or 802.11g, both of which use ONLY the 2.4 GHz band. However, 802.11a and 802.11n are compatible.
Next up we have 802.11b and 802.11g, now the middle children. Both use the 2.4 GHz band and can communicate with each other as well as with 802.11n. Only 802.11a is left out of this love triangle.
Finally, we have 802.11n, the golden child. It is all things to all wireless networks and should be able to communicate with all Wi-Fi standards, the original 1997 standard aside.
Unfortunately, while there is a lot of compatibility between the different wireless standards, this compatibility isn’t always enabled by default. If you have two Wi-Fi devices that should be talking without issue – but you instead can’t form a connection or find the connection to be excessively unreliable or slow – the problem is likely that the devices aren’t communicating well even though they should already know how to talk.
For example, I received an 802.11n router from my ISP when they set up my service. However, I found that the router wasn’t working with my 802.11g devices. The problem was that the router’s default configuration accepted connections from 802.11n devices only. I had to change it to “legacy mode” to enable support for 802.11g as well. If you are having problems with a new router, this is the most likely culprit.
Do note that while the older and newer Wi-Fi standards are often compatible, a connection will only be as quick as the slowest legacy device. You can connect your 802.11g laptop to a 802.11n router, but you’ll only be able to obtain 802.11g speeds.
Wireless standards can be a bit of a bear, but hey, it could be worse. After all, imagine if the wireless standards were not designed to be backwards compatible – that could result in a horde of unhappy users! If you have any tips about wireless standards, or if you have any horror stories, post them in the comments.
Also be sure to check out our post “Wi-Fi for Dummies” if you’re having general Wi-Fi problems.