802.11x: Wi-Fi standards and speeds explained

Ever-improving Wi-Fi standards make for denser, faster Wi-Fi networks.

802.11: Wi-Fi standards and speeds explained
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The term Wi-Fi is synonymous with wireless LANs, despite the fact it’s a specific trademark owned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a group dedicated to certifying that products meet the IEEE’s wireless standards.

In the IEEE’s naming convention, all standards that specify protocols for implementing wireless LANs fall under the 802.11umbrella. Individual standards are assigned alphabetically, 802.11a, 802.11b, etc. Thanks to the widespread acceptance of wireless LANs, new standards continue to be developed at a rapid pace, creating a confusing alphabet soup.

In an effort to help the general public understand the standards a bit better, the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2018 began translating the technical names of standards into an easy-to-remember numerical system (Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6) that mirrors the way that cellular technologies are named (3G, 4G, 5G).

The following is an explanation of Wi-Fi standards broken into four sections: popular core standards, future standards that are still under development, standards that are designed for niche applications and historical standards that might not be in use anymore. You can also view a timeline of these standards at the IEEE website.

Core WLAN standards

Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)

Older home wireless routers are likely 802.1ac compliant and operate in the 5 GHz frequency band. With Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) technology – multiple antennas operating on both sending and receiving devices to reduce errors and boost speed – this standard supports data rates up to 3.46Gbps.

Some router vendors include technologies that support the 2.4GHz frequency via 802.11n or Wi-Fi 4, providing support for older client devices that may have 802.11b/g/n radios, but also providing additional bandwidth for improved data rates. Newer home routers and new devices now feature Wi-Fi 6 and/or 6E support.

Wi-Fi 6 and 6E (802.11ax): High Efficiency WLAN

Known as High Efficiency WLAN, 802.11ax aims to improve performance in dense scenarios, such as sports stadiums and airports, while still operating in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum. Wi-Fi 6 promises at least a 4X improvement in throughput compared to 802.11n and 802.11ac., through more efficient spectrum utilization. The standard was published in May 2021.

Wi-Fi 6E extends the protocol into the 6 GHz frequency band and can utilize up to 14 additional 80 MHz channels, or seven additional 160 MHz channels, for applications such as high-definition video and virtual reality. Devices that use 6E can deliver greater network performance and support more Wi-Fi users at once, even in dense and congested environments, the Wi-Fi Alliance says. Additional use cases include unified communications, cloud computing and telepresence, as well as accelerate next-generation connectivity with 5G networks.

Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be): Extremely High Throughput

The successor to Wi-Fi 6 and 6E is the 802.11be standard, labeled by the Wi-Fi Alliance as Wi-Fi 7. This version is still in the draft stages with final approval expected in 2024 (although products will likely be out sooner once the draft protocols are approved).

This protocol focuses on indoor and outdoor operations with stationary and mobile speeds in the 2.4, 5 and 6 GHz frequency bands, and a goal of supporting a maximum throughput of at least 30 Gbps (with the potential of reaching 46 Gbps), while ensuring backwards compatibility.

The higher throughput would be able to support video traffic in the 4K to 8K resolution range (uncompressed range of 20 Gbps), as well as high-throughput, low-latency applications such as augmented reality, virtual reality, remote office and cloud computing.

 Features being discussed include using 320 MHz bandwidth (doubling the maximum channel size of 160 MHz) and more efficient utilization of non-contiguous spectrum, multi-band/multi-channel aggregation, doubling the spatial streams through MIMO enhancements from eight to 16), multi-access point coordination, and enhanced link adaptation and retransmission protocol. Version Draft 2.0 was submitted July 2022, with an expected draft approval by November 2022, and final approval expected by March 2024.

Wi-Fi standards under development

802.11az: Next Generation Positioning (NGP)

A study group was formed in January 2015 to address the needs of a “station to identify its absolute and relative position to another station or stations it’s either associated or unassociated with.” The goals of the group would be to define modifications to the media access control and physical layers that enable “determination of absolute and relative position with better accuracy with respect to the Fine Timing Measurement (MTM) protocol executing on the same PHY-type, while reducing existing wireless medium use and power consumption, and is scalable to dense deployments.” Final approval is expected by December 2022.

802.11bd - Next gen vehicle-to-vehicle communication

One of the concepts associated with the world of smart vehicles is that cars in close proximity can create ad-hoc vehicular networks in order to share information associated with safety and traffic management. 802.11bd is being defined as an amendment to 802.11p to improve for reliability, latency and throughput. Final approval is expected by December 2022.

802.11bf - WLAN sensing

This standard explores the use of a WLAN that could sense wireless signals in order to detect features of an intended target in a given environment, such as the range, velocity, angle, motion, presence or proximity, or gestures. Objects could be human or animal, and environments could be in a room, house, vehicle, or office. An initial draft is expected in September 2022, with final approval expected in the July to September 2024 timeframe.

802.11bh - Randomized and Changing MAC Addresses

The 802.11aq standard formalized MAC privacy for 802.11 stations, which includes changing their MAC address and/or using a randomized MAC address. However, this can have a wide range of repercussions that impact not only 802.11 networks, but also many related services. This working group was formed to develop an amendment to mitigate these impacts, while continuing to protect the user privacy advantages provided by randomized and/or changing MAC addresses. An initial draft of these changes is expected by September 2022.

802.11bi - Enhanced Data Privacy

The goal of this amendment is to specify modifications to the 802.11 media access control (MAC) specification to create new mechanisms that address and improve user privacy. Users and governments are concerned about protecting personal information such as location, movements, contacts and activities. Being compliant with 80.211 does not sufficiently protect users from tracking and profiling attacks. An initial draft proposal is expected by March 2023.

Niche Wi-Fi standards

802.11ahWi-Fi HaLow

802.11ah defines the operation of license-exempt networks in frequency bands below 1GHz (typically the 900 MHz band), excluding the TV White Space bands. In the U.S., this includes 908-928MHz, with varying frequencies in other countries. The purpose of 802.11ah is to create extended-range Wi-Fi networks that go beyond typical networks in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz space (remember, lower frequency means longer range), with data speeds up to 347Mbps.

In addition, the standard aims to have lower energy consumption, useful for Internet of Things devices to communicate across long ranges without using a lot of energy. But it also could compete with Bluetooth technologies in the home due to its lower energy needs. The protocol was approved in September 2016 and published in May 2017.

802.11ad: High throughput, short distance

Approved in December 2012, 802.11ad is very fast - it can provide up to 6.7Gbps of data rate across the 60 GHz frequency, but that comes at a cost of distance – you achieve this only if your client device is situated within 3.3 meters (only 11 feet) of the access point.

802.11ay: Next gen 60GHz

This standard supports a maximum throughput of at least 20 Gbps within the 60GHz frequency (802.11ad currently achieves up to 7 Gbps), as well as increasing the range and reliability. The standard was published in July 2021.

Historic Wi-Fi standards

802.11n (Wi-Fi 4)

The first standard to specify MIMO, 802.11n was approved in October 2009 and  allows for usage in two frequencies - 2.4GHz and 5GHz, with speeds up to 600Mbps. When you hear wireless LAN vendors use the term “dual-band”, it refers to being able to deliver data across these two frequencies.

802.11g

Approved in June 2003, 802.11g was the successor to 802.11b, able to achieve up to 54Mbps rates in the 2.4GHz band, matching 802.11a speed but within the lower frequency range. 

802.11a

The first “letter” following the June 1997 approval of the 802.11 standard, this one provided for operation in the 5GHz frequency, with data rates up to 54Mbps. Counterintuitively, 802.11a came out later than 802.11b, causing some confusion in the marketplace because people expected that the standard with the "b" at the end would be backward compatible with the one with the "a" at the end. Nope.

802.11b

Released in September 1999, it’s most likely that your first home router was 802.11b, which operates in the 2.4GHz frequency and provides a data rate up to 11 Mbps.

802.11-1997

The first standard, providing a data rate up to 2 Mbps in the 2.4GHz frequency. It provided a range of a whopping 66 feet indoors (330 feet outdoors), so if you owned one of these routers, you probably only used it in a single room.

Keith Shaw is a freelance digital journalist who has written about the IT world for more than 20 years.

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