The Most Common Wi-Fi Standards and Types Explained
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Wi-Fi is a catch-all term. In a sense, it is very precise. It explains a specific method you can use to connect to the internet.

There are many different types of Wi-Fi standards. Your router, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and smart home devices all use different wireless standards to connect to the internet. Wireless standards change every few years, too. Updates bring faster internet, better connections, more simultaneous connections, and so on.

The issue is, for most people, the sheer litany of wireless standards and specifications is confusing. Here’s the full rundown on Wi-Fi standards.

Wi-Fi Standards Explained

Wireless standards are a set of services and protocols that dictate how your Wi-Fi network (and other data transmission networks) acts.

The most common set of wireless standards you will encounter is the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN (WLAN) & Mesh. The IEEE update the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard every few years. The current Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac, while the next generation Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, is in the process of rolling out.

A Brief History of Wireless Standards

Wi-Fi comparison table

Not all old Wi-Fi standards are obsolete. At least, not yet. Here is a brief history of Wi-Fi standards, and whether the standard is still active.

IEEE 802.11

The original! Created in 1997, this now-defunct standard supported a blazing fast maximum connection speed of megabits per second (Mbps). 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 5GHz band. This was done with the hope of encountering less interference since many devices (like most wireless phones) also use the 2.4GHz band. 802.11a is fairly quick too, with maximum data rates topping out at 54Mbps. 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 2.4GHz band and can achieve a maximum speed of 11Mbps. 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 54Mbps while retaining usage of the reliable 2.4GHz band. This resulted in widespread adoption of the standard.

IEEE 802.11n

Introduced in 2009, this version had slow initial adoption. 802.11n operates on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, as well as supporting multi-channel usage. Each channel offers a maximum data rate of 150Mbps, which means the maximum data rate of the standard is 600Mbps.

IEEE 802.11ac

The ac standard is what you will find most wireless devices using at the time of writing. Initially released in 2014, ac drastically increases the data throughput for Wi-Fi devices up to a maximum of 1,300 megabits per second. Furthermore, ac adds MU-MIMO support, additional Wi-Fi broadcast channels for the 5GHz band, and support for more antenna on a single router.

IEEE 802.11ax

Next up for your router and your wireless devices is the ax standard. When ax completes its rollout, you will have access to theoretical network throughput of 10Gbps—around a 30-40 percent improvement over the ac standard. Furthermore, wireless ax will increase network capacity by adding broadcast subchannels, upgrading MU-MIMO, and allowing more simultaneous data streams.

You can get the down low on the new 802.11ax standard right here What Is Wi-Fi 6 and Do You Need a New Router? What Is Wi-Fi 6 and Do You Need a New Router? There's a new wireless standard coming. But what is Wi-Fi 6? And should you upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router? Read More .

Can All Wi-Fi Standards Communicate?

Two devices using the same Wi-Fi standard can communicate without restriction. Issues arise, however, when you try to connect two devices that use different, potentially incompatible wireless standards.

  • In recent times, your router and devices using 802.11ac can communicate happily.
  • Devices that use 802.11b, g, and n can all communicate with an ac router.
  • 11b cannot communicate with a, and vice versa.
  • 11g cannot communicate with b, and vice versa.

The original 1997 standard (now known as 802.11 legacy) is now obsolete, while the a and b standards are nearing the end of their lifespan.

Legacy Wi-Fi Standards Firmware Issues

If you buy a new device, you make your purchase with the knowledge that when you get it home, it will connect to your router. If you have an old router, using an old Wi-Fi standard, that isn’t that case.

It is the same if you have a legacy device.

For instance, if you bring home a shiny new 802.11ac router to beam Wi-Fi to all of the dark recesses, it doesn’t mean your old device can suddenly use the ac standard. You will receive some of the benefits of the router, such as the range increase, but your connection is only as fast as the device Wi-Fi standard.

If your device is using 802.11n, it will only connect and transmit using the n standard.

What Is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is the Wi-Fi Alliance’s wireless standard naming system. The Wi-Fi Alliance argue that the 802.11 terminology is confusing for consumers. They are right; updating one or two letters doesn’t give users much information to work with.

The Wi-Fi Alliance naming system runs concurrently with the IEEE 802.11 convention. Here’s how the naming standards correlate:

  • Wi-Fi 6: 802.11ax (coming in 2019)
  • Wi-Fi 5: 802.11ac (2014)
  • Wi-Fi 4: 802.11n (2009)
  • Wi-Fi 3: 802.11g (2003)
  • Wi-Fi 2: 802.11a (1999)
  • Wi-Fi 1: 802.11b (1999)
  • Legacy: 802.11 (1997)

Now Secure Your Wi-Fi Router While You Can

Upgrading your devices to the latest Wi-Fi standard comes with heaps of benefits, not least the speed increase. Upgrading your router is that little bit easier now you can differentiate between the various Wi-Fi standards.

One thing to consider is your network security. Here are simple tips on how you can secure your home Wi-Fi network in minutes 7 Simple Tips to Secure Your Router and Wi-Fi Network in Minutes 7 Simple Tips to Secure Your Router and Wi-Fi Network in Minutes Is someone sniffing and eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi traffic, stealing your passwords and credit card numbers? Would you even know if somebody was? Probably not, so secure your wireless network with these 7 simple steps. Read More !

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  1. Geoffrey Culloden
    June 24, 2017 at 11:12 am

    I have an internet connection in my house...I don`t know if it is a,n,g, etc etc...all I know is that am getting frustrated with it. It is from Airtel. For 100 GB/month am paying Rs.2000/- plus. I have about 5 devices using it (not continuously)...2 laptops and 3 mobiles...and I NEVER get a moment when it keeps going off completely very often...that too when am doing my work, or buying anything online....never a day goes by without this happening...very annoying. Can you kindly explain or advise me how I can solve this problem...at least with my laptop ? Am using a new laptop LENOVO ideapad 110. How can I check if my laptop is compatible with my router settings...please reply soon. Thanks!

  2. Adam
    February 14, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    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.

  3. Randy Addison
    January 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    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.

  4. Randy Addison
    January 13, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    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.

  5. RJ
    January 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    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
      February 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm

      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.

  6. RJ
    January 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    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.