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An Introduction to 802.11 (Wi-Fi) Technologies

The WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) protocol, IEEE 802.11, allows wireless and mobile network access to a network infrastructure. Before the 802.11b protocol (which was coined Wi-Fi) was widely adopted in the early 2000s, to get high speed network access to your LAN you had to be physically connected via a cable. The family of 802.11 protocols are made up of an arrangement of over-the-air modulation techniques that use the same basic principles. The most widely used protocols are the 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n for 2.4GHz networks and the 802.11a, 802.11n and 802.11ac for 5GHz networks.

Benefits of using 802.11 Wireless Networks

Wireless connections can replace wired infrastructure or extend existing networks

For applications in which it is impractical to lay cables or it is too costly, 802.11 Wireless Networks can be used in the following situations:

  • When connecting two networks in separate buildings with a critical obstacle obstructing you, an 802.11 WLAN connection can be used to avoid purchasing a leased line from a telecommunications vendor providing significant savings.
  • Temporary 802.11 WLAN networks can be set up instantly reducing deployment times for applications such as conventions.
  • 802.11 WLAN networks do not require the laying of cables in homes and offices where aesthetics are critical.
  • Mobile computer users can connect to 802.11 WLAN networks in changing locations and always remain connected to the network without being near a network socket or router.
  • 802.11 "Hot Spot" areas can provide internet access for the public in places such as airports, hotels and retail centres.

802.11 Operating Modes

Infrastructure Mode is used when there is at least one Wireless Access Point and client. The client connects to the network through the Access Point to gain internet access.

Ad Hoc Mode is used when wireless clients want to directly communicate with each other without going through an Access Point. This is also called peer-to-peer mode.

Note: The vast majority of 802.11 WLANs that you will have encountered will have been operating in Infrastructure Mode.

Further information on application methods for 802.11 Wireless Networks can be found in the Introduction to 2.4GHz Technology and Introduction to 5GHz Technology articles respectively.

Popular 802.11 Standards

802.11a

The 802.11a protocol standard uses the same data link layer protocol and frame format as the original 802.11-1997 standard but instead uses an OFDM air interface for the physical layer. Its operating frequency range is in the 5GHz band and has a maximum bandwidth of 54mbps. Due to the 2.4GHz range becoming overcrowded using the 802.11a standard has a significant advantage. However, the effective range of the 5GHz 802.11a is lower than that of the 802.11b, g and n protocols as, in theory, the signal is more easily absorb by solid objects such as walls due to the smaller wavelength which reduces its penetration. Nevertheless, due to the lack of interference in the 5GHz range, 802.11a often has a similar or even greater range in practice.

802.11b

802.11b was the first widely adopted standard wireless networking products. It has a maximum bandwidth of 11Mbps and uses the same media access method as that of the original 802.11-1997 standard. Working on the 2.4GHz frequency range, 802.11b suffers greatly from interference with other consumer items such as Bluetooth devices, DECT & VoIP Wireless phones, wireless keyboards and mice and also microwave ovens etc.

802.11g

802.11g was the next step on from 802.11b still operating a 2.4GHz but using OFDM based transmission. It has a maximum bandwidth of 54Mbps and is backwards compatible with 802.11b hardware. It was the next industrial standard and was, again, widely adopted for WLAN applications due to the increased data transfer rates. Much similar to 802.11b, 802.11g devices can suffer badly from interference from other 2.4GHz consumer products. OFDM is enabled at speeds above 20Mbps which greatly increases NLOS (Non-Line-of-Sight) capabilities.

802.11n

802.11n is a revision that improves on the previous standards by adding MIMO (Multiple-In-Multiple-Out) capabilities, can operate not just on the 2.4GHz frequency range but also at 5GHz, 40 MHz channels to the physical layer and frame aggregation to the MAC layer. 802.11 is backwards compatible with 802.11a, b and g. OFDM is enabled across the whole speed range which greatly increases NLOS (Non-Line-of-Sight) capabilities.

MIMO uses multiple antennas to intelligently resolve a larger amount of data than possible when using a single antenna. It does this by using SDM (Spatial Division Multiplexing) which uses multiple but independent data streams that are transferred simultaneously inside one channel of bandwidth. This increases the throughput bandwidth as the number of resolved streams is increased.

Doubling the channel size from 20MHz to 40MHz can be enabled on 802.11n compatible equipment which allows for twice the data rate on the physical layer relative to a 20MHz channel.

These two features combined give the 802.11n standard increased bandwidth capabilities when compared to 802.11g at 2.4GHz and 802.11a at 5GHz of up to 600Mbps (in theory) when using 4 spatial streams and a 40MHz channel and an increase in range over previous standards when put in practice. It seems that with 802.11 Wi-Fi chip manufactures applying market pressure to move onto this protocol, 802.11 should become the new standard over the next few years.

802.11ac

802.11ac operates at 5GHz using OFDM based modulation. The specification expects WLAN throughput of at least 1Gbp/s and a single link throughput of at least 500Mbp/s. This is achieved by extending concepts from the 802.11n standard such as wider RF bandwidth (up to 160MHz, mandatory 80MHz), more MIMO spatial streams (up to 8), mulit-user MIMO and high-density odulation (up to 256-QAM).

Shown below is a comparison table of the characteristics of the five standards mentioned above:

802.11 Wireless Networking Standards

802.11 Protocol Release Frequency Channel Bandwidth Data rate per stream (Mbps) Allowable MIMO streams Modulation Approx indoor range (m) Approx outdoor range (m)
- Jun-97 2.4 20 Up to 2 1 DSSS, FHSS 20 100
a Sep-99 5 20 Up to 54 1 OFDM 35 120
b Sep-99 2.4 20 Up to 11 1 DSSS 38 140
g Jun-03 2.4 20 Up to 54 1 OFDM,DSSS 38 140
n Oct-09 2.4/5 20 Up to 72.2 4 OFDM 70 250
40 Up to 150 70 250
ac Dec-12 5 80 / 160 Up to 866.7 8

OFDM

   

As explained in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz articles, advertised and theoretical speeds are not representative of actual, real world speeds. Therefore the suggested 'real' speeds of the standards could be said to be as follows (please note that throughput speed will vary for each individual wireless network set up so these figure should only be taken as a rough guide):

802.11 Wireless Networking Standards

802.11 Protocol Advertised Speed (Mbps) Real World Throughput Speed (Mbps)
802.11a 54 ≈ 27.5
802.11b 11 ≈ 4.5
802.11g (11b compatibility on) 54 ≈ 14.5
802.11g 54 ≈ 23
802.11g MIMO 108 ≈ 45
802.11n 300 ≈ 74
802.11n 600 ≈ 144
802.11ac 1.3Gbps ≈ 800

Channels

You may have heard the term 'Channels' mentioned in these articles and not been sure exactly what it is referring to. Channels are the sub-division of the main operating frequency range into smaller channels in the exact same way as a television or radio does and ultimately operating on one of these smaller bandwidth channels rather than the whole operating frequency range. For the 2.4GHz range, the band, from 2.4000GHz to 2.4835GHz, is divided into 13 channels each with a bandwidth of 22MHz spaced 5MHz apart. For the 5GHz range, the band, from 5.180GHz to 5.805GHz, is divided into 23 channels each with a bandwidth of 20MHz spaced 20MHz apart. These channels are given numbers for ease of reference and are shown below (only UK legal channels are shown):

2.4GHz Channels

5 GHz Channels

Channel Frequency (MHz) Channel Frequency (MHz)
1 2412 36 5180
2 2417 40 5200
3 2422 44 5220
4 2427 48 5240
5 2432 52 5260
6 2437 56 5280
7 2442 60 5300
8 2447 64 5320
9 2452 100 5500
10 2457 104 5520
11 2462 108 5540
12 2467 112 5560
13 2472 116 5580
14 2484 120 5600
    124 5620
    128 5640
    132 5660
    136 5680
    140 5700
    149 5745
    153 5765
    157 5785
    161 5805

Channels 1, 6 and 11 are recommended for 2.4GHz operation to avoid the overlapping of channel usage and all channels for 5GHz operation are non-overlapping. The overlapping of channels on the 2.4GHz frequency range is shown in the diagram below:

Frequency Spectrum

Security

802.11 Wireless transmissions can be encrypted to improve the security and confidentiality of the data that is being transferred. WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2 are the three types of security available with WPA2 using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) technology. The recommended encryption method for modern home and consumer networks is WPA2 (AES Pre-Shared Key) and for the Enterprise level, WPA2 along with a RADIUS authentication server (or another type of authentication server) and a strong authentication method such as EAP-TLS.

802.11 Standards

For further reference, here is a definitive list of all the current and proposed 802.11 standards:

  • 802.11 -1997: The WLAN standard was originally 1 Mbps and 2 Mbps, 2.4GHz RF and infrared standard (1997), all the others listed below are amendments to this standard.
  • 802.11 a: 54 Mbps, 5GHz standard (1999, shipping products in 2001)
  • 802.11 b: Enhancements to 802.11 to support 5.5 and 11 Mbps (1999)
  • 802.11 c: Bridge operation procedures; included in the IEEE 802.1D standard (2001)
  • 802.11 d: International (country-to-country) roaming extensions (2001)
  • 802.11 e: Enhancements: QoS, including packet bursting (2005)
  • 802.11 g: 54 Mbps, 2.4GHz standard (backwards compatible with b) (2003)
  • 802.11 h: Spectrum Managed 802.11a (5GHz) for European compatibility (2004)
  • 802.11 i: Enhanced security (2004)
  • 802.11 j: Extensions for Japan (2004)
  • 802.11 -2007: A new release of the standard that includes amendments a, b, d, e, g, h, i & j. (July 2007)
  • 802.11 k: Radio resource measurement enhancements (2008)
  • 802.11 n: Higher throughput improvements using MIMO (multiple input, multiple output antennas) and 5GHz support (September 2009)
  • 802.11 p: WAVE-Wireless Access for the Vehicular Environment (such as ambulances and passenger cars) (July 2010)
  • 802.11 r: Fast BSS transition (FT) Working "Task Group r" (2008)
  • 802.11 s: Mesh Networking, Extended Service Set (ESS) (June 2011)
  • 802.11 u: Interworking with non-802 networks (for example, cellular) (Dec 2010)
  • 802.11 v: Wireless network management (Dec 2010)
  • 802.11 w: Protected Management Frames (September 2009)
  • 802.11 y: 3650-3700 MHz Operation in the U.S. (2008)
  • 802.11 z: Extensions to Direct Link Setup (DLS) (September 2010)
  • 802.11 mb: Maintenance of the standard. Will become 802.11-2011. (Dec 2011)
  • 802.11 aa: Robust streaming of Audio Video Transport Streams (Mar 2012)
  • 802.11 ac: Very High Throughput <6 GHz; potential improvements over 802.11n: better modulation scheme (expected 10% throughput increase), wider channels (80 or even 160 MHz), multi user MIMO (Dec 2012)
  • 802.11 ad: Very High Throughput 60 GHz (Dec 2012)
  • 802.11 ae: QoS Management (Dec 2011)
  • 802.11 ac: Very High Throughput <6 GHz; potential improvements over 802.11n: better modulation scheme (expected ~10% throughput increase), wider channels (estimate in future time 80 to 160 MHz), multi user MIMO
  • 802.11 af: TV Whitespace (Mar 2012)
  • 802.11 ah: Sub 1Ghz (July 2013)
  • 802.11 ai: Fast Initial Link Setup (~ February 2015)
  • 802.11 mc: Maintenance of the Standard (~ March 2015)
  • 802.11 aj: China Millimeter Wave (~ October 2016)
  • 802.11aq: Pre-association Discovery (~ May 2015)
  • 802.11 ak: General Links
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