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Wi-Fi standards and speeds explained, compared

Wi-Fi standards and speeds explained, compared

Ever-improving Wi-Fi standards make for denser, faster wi-fi networks.

In the world of wireless, the term Wi-Fi is synonymous with wireless access, even though the term Wi-Fi itself (and the Wi-Fi Alliance) is a group dedicated to interoperability between different wireless LAN products and technologies.

The standards themselves are part of the 802.11 family of standards, courtesy of the IEEE. With terms such as “802.11b” (pronounced “Eight-O-Two-Eleven-Bee”, ignore the “dot”) and “802.11ac”, the alphabet soup of standards that began in the late 1990s continues to see improvements in throughput and range as we race to the future to get faster network access.

Along the way, improvements are being made by adopting new frequencies for wireless data delivery, as well as range improvements and reduced power consumption, to help support initiatives like “The Internet of Things” and virtual reality.

 If it’s been some time since you’ve paid attention to all of the different letters of the 802.11 standards, here’s an update of where we’re situated with the physical (PHY) layer standards within 802.11, listed in reverse chronological order. At the bottom there are descriptions of standards still in the works.

802.11ah

Also known as Wi-Fi HaLow, 802.11ah defines operation of license-exempt networks in frequency bands below 1GHz (typically the 900 MHz band), excluding the TV White Space bands. In the U.S., this includes 908-928MHz, with varying frequencies in other countries. The purpose of 802.11ah is to create extended range Wi-Fi networks that go beyond typical networks in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz space (remember, lower frequency means longer range), with data speeds up to 347Mbps. In addition, the standard aims to have lower energy consumption, useful for Internet of Things devices to communicate across long ranges without using a lot of energy. But it also could compete with Bluetooth technologies in the home due to its lower energy needs. The protocol was approved in September 2016 and published in May 2017.

802.11ad

Approved in December 2012, 802.11ad is very fast - it can provide up to 6.7Gbps of data rate across the 60 GHz frequency, but that comes at a cost of distance – you achieve this only if your client device is situated within 3.3 meters (only 11 feet) of the access point.

802.11ac

Your current home wireless router (if you like keeping up with advances in the space) is likely an 802.1ac router that operates in the 5 GHz frequency space. With Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) – multiple antennas on sending and receiving devices to reduce error and boost speed – this standard supports data rates up to 3.46Gbps. Some router vendors include technologies that support the 2.4GHz frequency via 802.11n, providing support for older client devices that may have 802.11b/g/n radios, but also providing additional bandwidth for improved data rates

 802.11n

The first standard to specify MIMO, 802.11n was approved in October 2009 and  allows for usage in two frequencies - 2.4GHz and 5GHz, with speeds up to 600Mbps. When you hear wireless LAN vendors use the term “dual-band”, it refers to being able to deliver data across these two frequencies.

802.11g

Approved in June 2003, 802.11g was the successor to 802.11b, able to achieve up to 54Mbps rates in the 2.4GHz band, matching 802.11a speed but within the lower frequency range.

802.11a

The first “letter” following the June 1997 approval of the 802.11 standard, this one provided for operation in the 5GHz frequency, with data rates up to 54Mbps. This came out later than 802.11b, causing some confusion in the marketplace, since 802.11b products couldn’t work with 802.11a products due to the different frequency band.

802.11b

Released in September 1999, it’s most likely that your first home router was an 802.11b router, which operates in the 2.4GHz frequency and provided up to 11 Mbps of data rate. Interestingly, products hit the market before 802.11a, which was approved at the same time but didn’t hit the market until later.

802.11-1997

The first standard, providing up to 2 Mbps of data rate in the 2.4GHz frequency. It provided a whopping 66 feet of coverage indoors (330 feet outdoors), so if you owned one of these routers, you probably only used it in a single room.

Coming soon or already here

802.11aj

Also known as China Millimeter Wave, this defines modifications to the 802.11ad physical later and MAC layer to enable operation in the China 59-64GHz frequency band. The goal is to maintain backward compatibility with 802.11ad (60GHz) when it operates in that 59-64GHz range and to operate in the China 45GHz band, while maintaining the 802.11 user experience. Final approval was expected in November 2017.

802.11ak

There are some products in the home-entertainment and industrial-control spaces that have 802.11 wireless capability and 802.3 Ethernet function. The goal of this standard is to help 802.11 media provide internal connections as transit links within 802.1q bridged networks, especially in the areas of data rates, standardized security and quality-of-service improvements. Approval was expected in November 2017.

802.11ax

Known as High Efficiency WLAN, 802.11ax aims to improve the performance in WLAN deployments in dense scenarios, such as sports stadiums and airports, while still operating in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum. The group is targeting at least a 4X improvement in throughput compared to 802.11n and 802.11ac., through moreefficient spectrum utilization. Approval is currently estimated to be in July 2019.

802.11ay

Also known as Next Generation 60GHz, the goal of this standard is to support a maximum throughput of at least 20Gbps within the 60GHz frequency (802.11ad currently achieves up to 7Gbps), as well as increase the range and reliability. The standard is expected to be approved between September and November 2019.

802.11az

Called Next Generation Positioning (NGP), a study group was formed in January 2015 to address the needs of a “Station to identify its absolute and relative position to another station or stations it’s either associated or unassociated with.” The goals of the group would be to define modifications to the MAC and PHY layers that enable “determination of absolute and relative position with better accuracy with respect to the Fine Timing Measurement (MTM) protocol executing on the same PHY-type, while reducing existing wireless medium use and power consumption, and is scalable to dense deployments.” The current estimate on approval of this standard is March 2021.

802.11ba

Otherwise known as “Wake-Up Radio” (WUR), this isn’t a crazy morning zoo crew thing, but rather a new technology aimed at extending the battery life of devices and sensors within an Internet of Things network. The goal of the WUR is to “greatly reduce the need for frequent recharging and replacement of batteries while still maintaining optimum device performance.” This is currently expected to be approved in July 2020.

Keith Shaw was a former Network World senior editor and writer of the Cool Tools column. He is now a freelance writer and editor from Worcester, Mass.


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