Understanding The Common WiFi Standards [Technology Explained]

wifithumb   Understanding The Common WiFi Standards [Technology Explained]WiFi 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 WiFi problems.

There are a lot of different types of WiFi standards used by routers and laptops, and to make matters worse, devices don’t typically complain when a sub-optimal WiFi connection is made because of mis-matched WiFi 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 WiFi standards.

The Cast & Crew – WiFi Standards

wifi1   Understanding The Common WiFi Standards [Technology Explained]

First things first – let’s take a gander at the WiFi standards that exist. These standards were created by an organization known as the WiFI 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 WiFi 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 WiFi’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 WiFi 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

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Obviously, two devices that use the same WiFi 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 WiFi standards, the original 1997 standard aside.

Software Problems

wifi3   Understanding The Common WiFi Standards [Technology Explained]

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 WiFi 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 WiFi 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.

Conclusion

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 “WiFi for Dummies” if you’re having general WiFi problems.

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6 Comments -

RJ

Another thing to note is that using Legacy or Mixed-mode (Or whatever the manufacturer calls it) setting on your router, whether it’s 802.11n or 802.11g, can slow it down somewhat. So, if you have a 802.11g router, for instance, and you have no devices that only use 802.11b, it’s best to have it use 802.11g mode only. Though you need to remember that it’s set for that, in case you get a ‘b’ device, or have a guest with one that you want to share your wireless with, as I had trouble with. Wasted an hour once wondering why it wouldn’t connect before (duh!) I realized I had mine set for ‘g’ only. One of the settings you do once when first set up, and usually never change again.
Also, wired is better; if you don’t like your speeds, and it’s not too difficult to do, use a wired connection instead. If you go to a store that sells wireless routers, they make it sound like it’s so much better than wired, no physical connection, and just as fast speeds, but a Fast Ethernet (100mb/s) connection will always beat a ‘b’ or ‘g’ connection, and beat an ‘n’ connection probably 98% of the time. If you have gigabit Ethernet, that will beat any current standard. Then again, few people have internet connections as fast as their home network (Unless their network has major problems), so you might not notice, but if you’re accessing anything within your network, like streaming movies from one place to another, or you have any kind of server, the speed will matter, especially for HD video.

RJ

Another thing to note is that using Legacy or Mixed-mode (Or whatever the manufacturer calls it) setting on your router, whether it’s 802.11n or 802.11g, can slow it down somewhat. So, if you have a 802.11g router, for instance, and you have no devices that only use 802.11b, it’s best to have it use 802.11g mode only. Though you need to remember that it’s set for that, in case you get a ‘b’ device, or have a guest with one that you want to share your wireless with, as I had trouble with. Wasted an hour once wondering why it wouldn’t connect before (duh!) I realized I had mine set for ‘g’ only. One of the settings you do once when first set up, and usually never change again.
Also, wired is better; if you don’t like your speeds, and it’s not too difficult to do, use a wired connection instead. If you go to a store that sells wireless routers, they make it sound like it’s so much better than wired, no physical connection, and just as fast speeds, but a Fast Ethernet (100mb/s) connection will always beat a ‘b’ or ‘g’ connection, and beat an ‘n’ connection probably 98% of the time. If you have gigabit Ethernet, that will beat any current standard. Then again, few people have internet connections as fast as their home network (Unless their network has major problems), so you might not notice, but if you’re accessing anything within your network, like streaming movies from one place to another, or you have any kind of server, the speed will matter, especially for HD video.

Adam

Will having a device running 802.11g on a network slow down 802.11n devices, if that g device isn’t currently active? Or will it always slow down the network as long as it is connected?

I have an airport express as a printer station, it is the older g model. I also have an xbox 360, 2 macbooks in the home, and 2 ipods (one n and one g). All have access to the network. I want to upgrade to a dual band (simultaneous 2.4/5Ghz) router. What I don’t want is the airport express or older ipod to pull down the speed of the 2.4Ghz signal that the xbox uses, when I am not printing or using the ipod. (I’ll probably have the xbox wired so that it won’t make much difference, but I think the xbox should theoretically be faster on the wireless (150Mbps) than the wired (100Mbps) since there is no gigabit ethernet on the xbox.

Randy Addison

Very interesting article. I now know that there is a new standard for WiFi. Checked my router and it is still at 802.11g thus I don’t have a compatibility issues but sometimes, my wifi connection chokes.

Randy Addison

Very interesting article. I now know that there is a new standard for WiFi. Checked my router and it is still at 802.11g thus I don’t have a compatibility issues but sometimes, my wifi connection chokes.

Adam

Will having a device running 802.11g on a network slow down 802.11n devices, if that g device isn’t currently active? Or will it always slow down the network as long as it is connected?

I have an airport express as a printer station, it is the older g model. I also have an xbox 360, 2 macbooks in the home, and 2 ipods (one n and one g). All have access to the network. I want to upgrade to a dual band (simultaneous 2.4/5Ghz) router. What I don’t want is the airport express or older ipod to pull down the speed of the 2.4Ghz signal that the xbox uses, when I am not printing or using the ipod. (I’ll probably have the xbox wired so that it won’t make much difference, but I think the xbox should theoretically be faster on the wireless (150Mbps) than the wired (100Mbps) since there is no gigabit ethernet on the xbox.