What On Earth Is 802.11?

Date September 26, 2012 Author Comments Leave your thoughts

What is 802.11What on earth is 802.11? Like it or not, the technology industry is infamous for its acronyms and seemingly nonsensical letters and numbers to denote products and specifications. This, for some of us, can often be alienating and can make ‘keeping up’ decidedly difficult.

Help is at hand! As well as ensuring that you are well informed of the very latest industry news, our blog will, wherever possible, attempt to shed some light on what one might describe as the more ‘trickier’ side of what we do – we hope that this will help you to make better informed decisions when dipping your toes into the murky waters of wireless communications, or at the very least help you to sound that bit more knowledgeable if any of our topics are ever raised over dinner (however unlikely that may be?).

So, here goes…

802.11 is an elaborate family of specifications for Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANS), there are several specifications within it and occasionally new ones are added. These specifications are established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a group best known for developing the recognised standards in the computer and electronics industry.

Put very simply, the standards are put in place to dictate how various wireless devices are designed and indeed, how they communicate with each other.

Still with me?… Good, because it’s going to get a bit technical!

So, where might you see 802.11 mentioned?

If you are in the market for a new laptop or tablet, you may have noticed the proclamations of certain devices which enable you to communicate at ‘ultra-high’ 802.11n speeds – for instance, Apple like to promote the use of 802.11n technology in all of their latest device and computers.

Or, alternatively, you may have joined a public wireless network recently and noticed 802.11 mentioned in its description – ensuring you are safe in the knowledge that you are enjoying an 802.11g network. Phew!

Now, the observant ones among you may have noticed a couple of sneaky additions hidden within the last paragraph – the letters ‘n’ and ‘g’ – why?

Well, If we think of ‘WiFi Technology’ as the umbrella, 802.11′a‘, ‘b‘, ‘g‘ and ‘n‘ are all of the wireless standards within the family ‘underneath’… trying not to get wet. (Not the best analogy, but I think it works…)

A Brief History

1997 saw the release of the very first WLAN standard, named 802.11. Sadly, the maximum bandwidth it could support (just 2Mbps) fell short of the requirements of most applications, resulting in the premature demise of all 802.11 products. However, soon afterwards in 1999 the IEEE improved on the original 802.11 standard, creating 802.11b, which operated at a superior bandwidth of 11Mbps, but with the downside of being susceptible to interference from microwaves, cordless phones and other devices if not carefully situated.

Closely following ‘b’ saw the release of 802.11a (go figure!), which although solved the interference issues (operating on a 5GHz frequency instead of the 2.4GHz used previously), was more expensive and thus far less popular, despite a comparatively rapid bandwidth of 54Mbps.

In 2003 a new standard, 802.11g, appeared on the market (again, go figure!), integrating the best features from 802.11b and ‘a’. This combination brought speed and range, incorporating the 54Mbps bandwidth with a 2.4GHz frequency.

And so finally, in 2009 802.11n was born. Designed to improve on ‘g’, the new standard enables the use of multiple simultaneous wireless signals, as well multiple inputs and multiple outputs (MIMO), allowing the wireless network to have a greater range and improved data flow.

Where next for Wi-Fi?

Due for release sometime in 2013, the all-new 802.11ac standard has been developed with speed and strength in mind.

Far faster than its predecessors, it offers the user a data rate between 450Mbps and 1.3Gbps, and operates in the 5GHz spectrum only, to guard against interference. Wi-Fi’s newest standard also employs beamforming technology, which allows the signal to be intelligently strengthened towards the approximate location of the device in use. A revelation in terms of the technology and one that could very well see the next generation of Wi-Fi competing with more traditional wired gigabit connections… we shall see.

Any questions?

If this brief overview has left you with any questions, please comment below and we’ll get back to you! Also, if you feel like letting us know what you think of our blog, or have any suggestions for future topics or discussions, drop us a comment – we would love to hear from you!

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Author Gregg Meade

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