Wi-Fi Standards Explained in Plain English

Wi-Fi Standards

Wi-Fi standards seem to change almost every year. I’m here to help you get un-confused as to what the various standards mean. In short, when a new standard comes out, the consumer gets either more speed, better security, or both. Many people would think that standards for wireless computer communications would be created by the Electronics Industry Association or the Telecommunications Industry Association. However, Wi-Fi standards are actually determined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

What Standards Have There Been?

There have been a few different standards for wireless networks that have been used in and by the computing industry over the years. These have all been based upon the IEEE 802.11 standard, which detailed the basic methods in which wireless devices would communicate with each other. The 802.11 standard has gone through several revisions since it first came out. These different versions are represented by letters:

  • 802.11a
  • 802.11b
  • 802.11g
  • 802.11n
  • 802.11ac

What Do These Different Wi-Fi Standards Mean?

That’s what I’m here to tell you: What they mean to you. In language that’s as easy to understand as possible. You can read all the technical gobbledy-gook here, if you want. I’m going the break the basic 802.11 standard down, as well as the first two major revisions of it (a and b) here, and then, because we’re still using them, devote a full section to the last three (g, n, and ac).

The IEEE 802.11 standard was adopted in the 1997 and provided for basic wireless connectivity between devices. This Wi-Fi standard enabled wireless communications at speeds between one and two Mbps (Megabits per second), and 0.5 mbps in service-provider speak. Ideally, this would allow you to stream a movie fairly well.

The 802.11a revision came out a year later and allowed for up to 54 Mbps (about 6.75 mbps), which was fast enough to allow for an enjoyable video streaming experience, while someone else is browsing the web and checking email — as long as they aren’t downloading huge files. Strangely, the next revision, 802.11b actually delivered less speed –11 Mbps — but used a lower frequency, which made the connection more reliable over longer distances.

Wi-Fi Standards in Use Today

The first of the “current” Wi-Fi standards is 802.11g. Speed was boosted back up to 54 Mbps, but for reliability and security, it kept the usable distance down to between 100 and 150 feet. 802.11n boosted speeds significantly, up to a max of 100 Mbps. This is fast enough for two movies to be streamed flawlessly, while two other people are browsing the web and checking email. This speed boost is gained by the use of multiple radios in the router. The multiple antennas also give it longer range. I’ve used my laptop while sitting in the park across the street from my house.

If you go out to buy a wireless router today, you’ll see a mix of wireless-n and wireless-ac devices. Wireless ac (802.11ac) also uses multiple antennas to deliver speed of up to 1.3 Gbps. If you’re in the market, this is what I recommend.

Wireless Security

There are three different options for wireless security: WEP, WPA, and WPA2. WEP stands for “Wireless Encryption Protocol” and isn’t recommended, so I’m not going to talk about it. WPA is “Wi-Fi Protected Access.” Security is gained through the use of encryption, which requires connected devices to have a key, or password, and provides security by scrambling the data. WPA2 builds upon that by using the Advanced Encryption Standard.

Do you have any questions about Wi-Fi standards? Ask away! Drop your questions in the comments box below.

Photo Credit: HFHotels