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What is 802.11? Which wireless protocol should my devices use?

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Question: What is 802.11? Which wireless protocol should my devices use?
Answer:

802.11 is a set of technology standards for wireless network devices. These standards are determined by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers), and they basically govern how different wireless devices are designed and how they communicate with each other.

You'll see 802.11 mentioned when you are looking to buy a wireless-enabled device or a piece of wireless hardware. When researching what netbook to buy, for example, you may see some advertised as communicating wirelessly at "ultra-high" 802.11n speeds (in fact, Apple touts its use of 802.11n technology in its latest computers and devices). The 802.11 standard is also mentioned in descriptions of wireless networks themselves; for example, if you want to connect to a public wireless hotspot, you may be told that it is an 802.11g network.

What do the letters mean?

The letter after "802.11" indicates an amendment to the original 802.11 standard. Wireless technology for consumers/the general public has progressed from 802.11a to 802.11b to 802.11g to, most recently, 802.11n. (Yes, the other letters, "c" and "m," for example, also exist in the 802.11 spectrum, but they are only primarily relevant to IT engineers or other specialized groups of people.)

Without getting into more detailed distinctions between 802.11a, b, g, and n networks, we can just generalize that each new version of 802.11 offers improved wireless network performance, compared to prior versions, in terms of:

  • data rate: maximum data transfer speed (i.e., how fast information can travel over the wireless network)
  • range: the distance the wireless signals can reach or how broad an area the wireless signals cover (i.e., how far you can be from the wireless signal source and still maintain a reliable connection)

802.11n (also known as "Wireless-N"), being the latest wireless protocol, offers the fastest maximum data rate today and better signal ranges than the prior technologies. In fact, demonstrated speeds for 802.11n products have been 7 times faster than 802.11g; at 300 or more Mbps (megabits per second) in real world usage, 802.11n is the first wireless protocol to seriously challenge wired 100 Mbps Ethernet setups.

Wireless-N products are also designed to perform better at greater distances, so that a laptop can be 300 feet away from the wireless access point signal and still maintain that high data transmission speed. By contrast, with the older protocols, your data speed and connection tend to be weakened when you are that far away from the wireless access point.

So why isn't everyone using Wireless-N products?

It took seven years until the 802.11n protocol was finally ratified/standardized by the IEEE in September of 2009. During those seven years when the protocol was still being worked out, many "pre-n" and "draft n" wireless products were introduced, but they tended to not work well with the other wireless protocols or even other pre-ratified 802.11n products.

Should I buy a Wireless-N network card/access point/portable computer, etc.?

Now that 802.11n has been ratified--and because wireless industry groups like the Wi-Fi Alliance have been pushing for compatibility between 802.11n and older 802.11 products--the risk of buying devices that can't communicate with each other or with older hardware has been greatly lessened.

The increased performance benefits of 802.11n are definitely worth a look, but keep in mind the following caveats/tips when deciding whether to stick with the more widely used 802.11g protocol or invest in 802.11n now:

  • Network performance will be greatest when each of the devices on the wireless network are using the 802.11n technology. On the flip side, if an older device using 802.11g or 802.11b connects to your 802.11n-based router, the speed and data rate of all the devices on the network will decrease. One way to get around this issue for your home wireless network is to get what's called a dual-band router or access point. This will allow older devices to run over one frequency band (2.4 GHz) and newer 802.11n-based devices to use the other frequency band (5 GHz).
  • Look for recently manufactured network devices, which will have a greater likelihood of conforming to the ratified 802.11n standard. Definitely avoid "pre-n" or "draft n" products.
  • Also look out for products that are certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance (they will have the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED logo on their packaging), as these products are tested for compatibility and interoperability.
  • Finally, keep in mind that most public wireless hotspots and wireless networks in general are more likely to be running 802.11g or even b. Although your newer 802.11n device is backwards-compatible with (i.e., can work on) these networks, it'll do so at the slower g or b speed.
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