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All Wireless Standards are NOT Created Equal

What to know about Wireless Standards

Everything is wireless these days so upgrading your Wi-Fi hardware is critical to future-proofing your network. When the time for new components is at hand, it is important to select the products that fully support your communication and data transfer needs. From fiber cabling to Wi-Fi routers, the choices abound and each one can have a direct impact on your overall network performance. Despite very similar nomenclature, the varying forms of 802.11 are all quite different.

How to choose the right wireless solution

Being able to clearly articulate the differences between Wi-Fi options is a must in order to help your management and procurement teams approve the right products for your applications. Following are the factors you will want to educate teams about so that they can effectively evaluate any new wireless purchase:

Bandwidth

Bandwidth, measured in terms of Mbps or Gbps, determines the speed with which data can be transmitted across a network. As can be expected, a higher bandwidth rating delivers faster data transmission. Today’s 802.11 technologies offer bandwidths ranging from 11 Mbps to as high as 10 Gbps.

It can be easy to immediately believe you want the maximum bandwidth range but it is important to keep in mind your own use. The higher bandwidths are generally only needed by larger networks or those running intensive applications such as streaming video.

Frequency

The frequency, measured in Gigahertz, determines a network’s range. It also directly affects interference by other wireless elements such as cell phones or microwaves or by physical obstacles such as walls. Standard Wi-Fi networks run on either 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz (commonly referred to as only 5 GHz) frequencies.

Frequency is one of those features that definitely does not comply with the “bigger is better” concept. A shorter frequency actually has a longer range, although it is more susceptible to interference from other wireless devices. A longer frequency flip-flops those benefits to provide a shorter range but better protection against other wireless interference. However, 5.8 GHz networks are more likely to be impeded by solid interference.

Single or Dual-Band

Most Wi-Fi technologies run on only one frequency but some tout the ability to run on both. Before you jump for joy and assume that is the best way to go, you better get the facts.

Technology that includes only one signal but says it is dual-band does not actually give you both 2.4 and 5.8 GHz functionality at once—it simply gives you the ability to choose which one you want at any given time. Only 802.11n which leverages multiple antennas actually supports both frequencies simultaneously.

Knowing the different functionalities offered by the key Wi-Fi network features can help you avoid getting caught up in the hype and selecting products just because they sound cooler or better.

Differences between 802.11 standards

The groundbreaking 802.11 made its entrance in 1997 with a whopping maximum bandwidth of 2 Mbps (competing Ethernet delivered 11 Mbps). Just two years later, a series of updates to 802.11 began making their way to market, making Wi-Fi a truly viable technology.

Following is an overview of the six most commonly known varieties:

802.11a

This flavor of Wi-Fi provided a giant leapfrog in transmission speeds with bandwidth support for up to 54 Mbps. This option ran on the 5 GHz frequency to make possible reliable use around other wireless signals. Shorter range and greater solid interference highlighted the need for more access points important, especially for dispersed networks. Now a technology of the past, 802.11a was the innovation that allowed enterprise and other levels of businesses to finally justify large-scale wireless implementations.

802.11b

While you would not purchase a new 802.11b router today, you quite likely still have 802.11b products on your network. This Wi-Fi option matched Ethernet speeds at 11 Mbps to give home users a level of functionality that they could really benefit from. The lower 2.4 GHz frequency is more susceptible to wireless interference but travels well through solid blocks and also offers great range.

802.11g

For networks that needed maximum speed and maximum range, the 802.11g delivers. Running on the 2.4 GHz frequency, it supports up to 54Mbps and is backward compatible with any 802.11b device. 802.11g is still commonly utilized today, in part due to its highly affordable price tag in comparison to newer technologies.

802.11n

This particular version of Wi-Fi runs on what is known as Multiple Input-Multiple Output (MIMO) technology. This basically means that an 802.11n network transmits data through as many as four channels, delivering the fastest network performance yet.

Launched in 2009, it is sometimes called Wireless N and offers up to 300 Mbps bandwidth, better range, and less susceptibility to interference. It is backward compatible with both 802.11b and 802.11g products.

802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)

This particular form of Wi-Fi is the most popular and most accepted at this time with both personal and business use equipment and networks. It could be said that 802.11ac is a hopped-up version of 802.11n with its power for multi-channel broadcasting.

The 802.11ac supports up to eight different channels and runs on the 5GHz platform, though it is compatible with 802.11b, g, and n products. As for speed, the theoretical maximums quoted for 802.11ac are not likely to be realized just yet due to limitations of other hardware that may be on a given network.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking element of 802.11ac is what is referred to as beamforming. This allows a router to transmit a message directly to a designated device, not simply over a certain pathway. Beamforming dramatically reduces interference and maintains optimal performance, especially for data-intensive transmissions.

Another item to take into consideration with any wireless product is range. While the environment and other factors can play a part in obtaining optimal ranges with your wireless devices, based on testing there are different approximate ranges for each standard of 801.22 to keep in mind. (Remember, these are approximate and can be affected by interference or other factors in the setup environment.)

802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6)

The new kid on the block for standards is very quickly becoming sought after by businesses due to their huge reliability on wireless systems and technologies to compete in today's market. 802.11ax, known as Wi-Fi 6, the 802.11ax standard went live in 2019 and will replace 802.11ac as the de facto wireless standard very soon. Wi-Fi 6 maxes out at 10 Gbps is more reliable in congested environments, supports better security, and uses less power. This is a win, win, win for everyone.

Integration Matters

When guiding IT, executives, and others through new Wi-Fi product choices, it is always important to remind them of how a given product or technology will integrate into the existing infrastructure. As seen with 802.11ac, its maximum theoretical speed may not be achievable without significant upgrades elsewhere along the line. This does not necessarily mean that it is the wrong choice, but setting everyone up with realistic expectations can help prevent frustration down the line.

Technology fueling network performance is among some of the most dynamic and complicated for many users to understand. A basic grasp of the different options available for Wi-Fi networks can help simplify decision-making processes.

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