IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi Standards

- an overview or tutorial about the IEEE 802.11 standards for Wi-Fi and WLAN applications and the associated WLAN equipment and the use of wifi hotspots.

Wireless connectivity for computers is now well established and virtually all new laptops contain a Wi-Fi capability. Of the WLAN solutions that are available the IEEE 802.11 standard, often termed Wi-Fi has become the de-facto standard. With operating speeds of systems using the IEEE 802.11 standards of around 54 Mbps being commonplace, Wi-Fi is able to compete well with wired systems. As a result of the flexibility and performance of the system, Wi-Fi "hotpots" are widespread and in common use. These enable people to use their laptop computers as they wait in hotels, airport lounges, cafes, and many other places using a wire-less link rather than needing to use a cable.

In addition to the 802.11 standards being used for temporary connections, and for temporary Wireless Local Area Network, WLAN applications, they may also be used for more permanent installations. In offices WLAN equipment may be used to provide semi-permanent WLAN solutions. Here the use of WLAN equipment enables offices to be set up without the need for permanent wiring, and this can provide a considerable cost saving. The use of WLAN equipment allows changes to be made around the office without the need to re-wiring.

As a result the Wi-Fi, IEEE 802.11 standard is widely used to provide WLAN solutions both for temporary connections in hotspots in cafes, airports, hotels and similar places as well as within office scenarios.

IEEE 802.11 Standards

There is a plethora of standards under the IEEE 802 LMSC (LAN / MAN Standards Committee). Of these even 802.11 has a variety of standards, each with a letter suffix. These cover everything from the wireless standards themselves, to standards for security aspects, quality of service and the like:

  • 802.11a - Wireless network bearer operating in the 5 GHz ISM band with data rate up to 54 Mbps.   Read more about 802.11a
  • 802.11b - Wireless network bearer operating in the 2.4 GHz ISM band with data rates up to 11 Mbps.   Read more about 802.11b
  • 802.11e - Quality of service and prioritisation
  • 802.11f - Handover
  • 802.11g - Wireless network bearer operating in 2.4 GHz ISM band with data rates up to 54 Mbps.   Read more about 802.11g
  • 802.11h - Power control
  • 802.11i - Authentication and encryption
  • 802.11j - Interworking
  • 802.11k - Measurement reporting
  • 802.11n - Wireless network bearer operating in the 2.4 and 5 GHz ISM bands with data rates up to 600 Mbps.   Read more about 802.11n
  • 802.11s - Mesh networking
  • 802.11ac - Wireless network bearer operating below 6GHz to provide data rates of at least 1Gbps per second for multi-station operation and 500 Mbps on a single link.   Read more about 802.11ac Gigabit Wi-Fi
  • 802.11ad - Wireless network bearer providing very high throughput at frequencies up to 60GHz.   Read more about 802.11ad microwave Wi-Fi
  • 802.11af - Wi-Fi in TV spectrum white spaces (often called White-Fi).   Read more about 802.11af White-Fi
  • 802.11ah - Wi-Fi using unlicensed spectrum below 1 GHz to provide long range communications and support for the Internet of Everything.   Read more about 802.11ah

Of these the standards that are most widely known are the network bearer standards, 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and now 802.11n.

802.11 Network bearer standards

All the 802.11 Wi-Fi standards operate within the ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) frequency bands. These are shared by a variety of other users, but no license is required for operation within these frequencies. This makes them ideal for a general system for widespread use.

There are a number of bearer standards that are in common use. These are the 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g standards. The 802.11n standard is the latest providing raw data rates of up to 600 Mbps.

Each of the different standards has different features and they were launched at different times. The first accepted 802.11 WLAN standard was 802.11b. This used frequencies in the 2.4 GHz Industrial Scientific and Medial (ISM) frequency band, this offered raw, over the air data rates of 11 Mbps using a modulation scheme known as Complementary Code Keying (CCK) as well as supporting Direct-Sequence Spread Spectrum, or DSSS, from the original 802.11 specification. Almost in parallel with this a second standard was defined. This was 802.11a which used a different modulation technique, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and used the 5 GHz ISM band. Of the two standards it was the 802.11b variant that caught on. This was primarily because the chips for the lower 2.4 GHz band were easier and cheaper to manufacture.

The 802.11b standard became the main Wi-Fi standard. Looking to increase the speeds, another standard, 802.11g was introduced and ratified in June 2003. Using the more popular 2.4 GHz band and OFDM, it offered raw data rates of 54 Mbps, the same as 802.11b. In addition to this, it offered backward compatibility to 802.11b. Even before the standard was ratified, many vendors were offering chipsets for the new standard, and today the vast majority of computer networking that is shipped uses 802.11g.

Then in January 2004, the IEEE announced it had formed a new committee to develop an even higher speed standard. With much of the work now complete, 802.11n is beginning to establish itself in the same way as 802.11g. The industry came to a substantive agreement about the features for 802.11n in early 2006. This gave many chip manufacturers sufficient information to get their developments under way. As a result it is anticipated that before long, with ratification of 802.11n expected in 2007, that some cards and routers will find their way into the stores.

  802.11a 802.11b 802.11g 802.11n
Date of standard approval July 1999 July 1999 June 2003 Oct 2009
Maximum data rate (Mbps) 54 11 54 ~600
RF Band (GHz) 5 2.4 2.4 2.4 or 5
Number of spatial streams 1 1 1 1, 2, 3, or 4
Channel width (MHz)
20 20 20 20, or 40

Summary of major 802.11 Wi-Fi Standards

Bandwidths of nominal 20 MHz are usually quoted, although the actual bandwidth allowed is generally 22 MHz.

802.11 Networks

There are two types of WLAN network that can be formed: infrastructure networks; and ad-hoc networks.

The infrastructure application is aimed at office areas or to provide a "hotspot". The WLAN equipment can be installed instead of a wired system, and can provide considerable cost savings, especially when used in established offices. A backbone wired network is still required and is connected to a server. The wireless network is then split up into a number of cells, each serviced by a base station or Access Point (AP) which acts as a controller for the cell. Each Access Point may have a range of between 30 and 300 metres dependent upon the environment and the location of the Access Point.

The other type of network that may be used is termed an Ad-Hoc network. These are formed when a number of computers and peripherals are brought together. They may be needed when several people come together and need to share data or if they need to access a printer without the need for having to use wire connections. In this situation the users only communicate with each other and not with a larger wired network. As a result there is no Access Point and special algorithms within the protocols are used to enable one of the peripherals to take over the role of master to control the network with the others acting as slaves.

By Ian Poole

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