802.11 – we’ve come a long way

The age of wireless networking began in 1997, with the creation of the 802.11 protocol. But just how far has the latest incarnation of WiFi come from those pioneering, cable-cutting days?

In 1997 came the 802.11 protocol – the perfect blend of controls and specifications for implementing a wireless local area network (WLAN). With 802.11, WiFi as we know it today was born.

The protocol has been adapted and evolved since then, keeping pace with the constant advancement of better and, crucially, smaller devices (particularly in the smartphone market), as well as the growing quantity of data that is exchanged over wireless networks. Adaptations to the protocol are certified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology.

Each update to 802.11 over the years (enhancements are made to meet an unmet need in the networking landscape, as a result of innovation) has been defined with a corresponding character (‘a’, ‘b’, etc.). Keeping abreast of the updates, however, can be far from easy when, say, ‘n’ follows ‘g’. The Register goes as far as to describe the process as an ‘alphabet soup’.

The latest chapter in 802.11’s history is 802.11ay (set for 2017), which could see download speeds of up to 20Gbit/sec – a colossal 10,000x swifter than the original ’97 802.11 (2Mb/sec). 802.11ay will likely serve shorter-range, high-bandwidth connectivity needs, such as TV and monitor displays.

To help you decipher the evolution of 802.11 in the meantime, we’ve put together a handy guide explaining each of the numerous updates.

802.11a AND 802.11b (1999)

The first 802.11 enhancements to be dubbed ‘WiFi’, these enhancements (operating on two different frequencies [802.11a on 5GHz spectrum…54Mb/sec; 802.11b on 2.4GHz…11Mb/sec]) brought wireless networking up to speed – literally – with Ethernet, beginning to persuade industry to cut the cord.

802.11a was set back by production issues and high costs, however, while products using 802.11b suffered from interference on the 2.4GHz spectrum from items including microwaves and cordless telephones.

802.11g (2003)


Solved the issues of 802.11b, providing products on the 2.4GHz spectrum with the same 54Mb/sec performance of those on 5Ghz.

802.11e (2005)

Highly suited to networks with multimedia capabilities, 802.11e represented the ‘next level’ for WiFi, prioritising data, talk and video transmissions. 802.11e is considered as being key to delay-sensitive applications, such as Voice over Wireless LAN and streaming multimedia.

802.11n (2009)

Skyrocketed download speeds to 135Mb/sec, improved reliability and extended the range of wireless transmissions, using multiple-antenna MIMO technology and a wider radio frequency channel.

802.11ad (2012)</h3

While introducing speeds nearing 7Gb/sec to cope with the proliferation of smartphones and high-speed video streaming, 802.11ad had a downfall. Operating at the 60Ghz spectrum increased pressures on antennas, leading to frequencies facing challenges going through walls, and also led to issues caused by oxygen degradation. Consequently, 802.11ad was not suitable for the consumer market.

802.11ad (now referred to as ‘WiGig’) could still have a bright future, however, with the WiFi Alliance predicting an increase in room-range connectivity applications (away from the consumer sphere), such as cable replacement for input/output and display extensions, wireless docking between devices, instant sync and backup and streaming of multiple, ultra-HD and 4K videos.

802.11ac (2013-14)

Taking the greatness of 802.11ad and making it even greater, 802.11ac sees speeds hit nearly 7Gb/sec in the consumer market for the first time, supporting ever more data-intensive tasks, such as the streaming of HD video.

802.11ac was also developed to be backwards compatible with 802.11n, allowing clients without 802.11ac to be served. An 802.11ac access point also utilises beamforming, which allows the transmission to be aimed more directly to the receiving device.

802.11ah (EXPECTED 2016)

The key potential of 802.11ah is an increased range, which may offer huge improvements in rural communications and the ability to take on cellular data. 802.11ah will also support the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) market by offering significantly lower energy consumption, allowing the creation of large groups of stations or sensors to cooperate and share signals, and the prospect of connecting thousands of devices under a single access point.

One thing’s for sure, WiFi continues to go from strength to strength.


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