What are 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n?

The Original 802.11 Protocol

802.11 is the original standard protocol for wireless network transmissions. You likely know it by its popular name, WiFi. This was created in 1997 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The subgroup of the IEEE that formed this protocol was called 802.11, which is where the protocol itself gets its name. It was soon discovered that 802.11 was too slow for most practical applications- it could only support 2 megabytes per second (Mbps). This standard was also unregulated and used the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) radio signaling frequency.

What is the Difference Between 802.11a and 802.11b?

In 1999, the IEEE released updated standards, called 802.11a and 802.11b. These methods of wireless transmitting were separate and not compatible with each other, and sought to cover different needs.

802.11a was more expensive, but much faster- its top speed was 54 Mbps, and it used a 5 GHz regulated frequency spectrum. This means that it was much harder for interference to damage signals. Unfortunately, this frequency also shortened its range, and the signal could be more easily obstructed. 802.11a was widely used in business settings. It is not used often today.

802.11b was cheapest, and had a top speed of 11 Mbps. That's around the top speed of today's wired ethernet connections. It used the same 2.4 GHz radio frequency as the old 802.11 standard, so while it had a fair range and could get around most obstructions, it was more susceptible to interference from microwaves and other wave generating devices. 802.11b was most popular in home settings.

While products exist that offer hybrid 802.11a+b connections, these products really just are putting two different connections next to each other. 802.11a and 802.11b are not compatible in any way.

The Next Wifi Standard: 802.11g

A new standard was created in 2003 that was designed to unify wireless networking and be less confusing for the consumer. This was called 802.11g. It uses the same 2.4 GHz frequency, but its maximum speed is 54 Mbps, and it's backwards-compatible with 802.11b.

Since it's still on the 2.4 GHz frequency, it has good range and can pass through most obstructions, but is vulnerable to interference by other radio sources. It also costs slightly more than 802.11b.

The Newest Wireless Protocol: 802.11n

The IEEE is still in the process of developing 802.11n, but products exist that support it provisionally already. It uses layered signals and multiple antennae to strengthen the broadcast.

802.11n will offer a top speed of over 100 Mbps, the best range of any protocol to date, and backwards compatibility with 802.11g, and thus 802.11b. Unfortunately, this standard isn't completed yet. In addition, using more than one layered signal might cause interference in networks nearby that use older protocols. It also will be the most expensive, though it is the top performer in all categories by far.

Other Protocols In The 802.11x Family

Most letters have been placed after the 802.11 title, but you're unlikely to see most besides a, b, g, and n. If you do, know that those protocols are much rarer to find and used only in specific niche networking areas. For instance, 802.11u has to do with 3G cellular networks, while 802.11j provides enhancements that conform to Japanese regulatory requirements. We can help you deal with these smaller standards if you have to, but the need usually does not arise.

Other Wireless Networking Standards

You may have heard of other wireless options. These are not replacements for normal 802.11 wifi, but many have their uses to this day.

Bluetooth is designed for low range, low data communication between devices. Your mouse or keyboard may be bluetooth, or you may have a bluetooth headset or stylus.

Infrared is a primitive way of communicating via infrared light. This is how your remote control to your television or DVD player works. This is not used to transmit real quantities of data.

WiMax is an old protocol that was designed to provide wireless internet over a distance of miles. However, it fell out of use, in part due to its high cost.

LTE, aka 4G, is a wireless broadband protocol that is used in modern cell phones. While fast, it is geographically dependant and not suitable for business use.

Your Wireless Network Needs

What’s the best choice for your business’ wireless network solutions? Managing these standards and protocols is complicated and can be confusing, but our wireless networking engineers are ready to help you navigate through the mess. Use the form below or call BCI today at (847) 615-2933.

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