Explanation of Most Common Wi-Fi Standards and Types


Confused about the different Wi-Fi standards used? Here’s what you need to know about Wi-Fi 6 and older wireless standards.

image wifi

Wi-Fi is a generic term. In a sense, this is very precise. It describes certain methods you can use to connect to the internet.

There are many types of Wi-Fi standards. Your router, laptop, tablet, smartphone and Smart Home devices all use different wireless standards to connect to the internet.

Wireless standards also change every few years. The update brings faster internet, better connections, more simultaneous connections, and so on.

The problem is that, for most people, the sheer number of wireless standards and specifications is confusing. Here’s a complete list of Wi-Fi standards.

Wi-Fi Standards Explained

Wireless standards are a set of services and protocols that define how your Wi-Fi network (and other data transmission networks) behave.

The most common set of wireless standards you will come across is IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN (WLAN) & mesh. The IEEE updates the Wi-Fi 802.11 standard every few years. At the time of writing, the current Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac, while the next generation Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, is in the process of being rolled out.

A Brief History of Wireless Standards

wifi history table

Here’s a brief history of the Wi-Fi standard and whether it’s still active ;

1) IEEE 802.11

Created in 1997, this now-defunct standard supports extremely fast maximum megabits per second (Mbps) connection speeds. Devices that use these haven’t been made for over a decade and won’t work with current equipment.

2) IEEE 802.11a

Made in 1999, this version of Wi-Fi works in the 5GHz band. This is done in the hope that there will be no interference as many devices (like most cordless phones) also use the 2.4GHz band. 802.11a is also quite fast, with a maximum data rate of 54Mbps. However, the 5GHz frequency has more trouble with objects in its signal path, so coverage is often poor.

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3) IEEE 802.11b

Also created in 1999, this standard uses the more common 2.4GHz band and can reach a maximum speed of 11Mbps. 802.11b is the standard that started the popularity of Wi-Fi.

4) IEEE 802.11g

Designed in 2003, the 802.11g standard increases the maximum data rate to 54Mbps while maintaining reliable use of the 2.4GHz band. This has resulted in widespread adoption of the standard.

5) IEEE 802.11n

Introduced in 2009, this version had a slow initial adoption. 802.11n operates at 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and supports multi-channel use. Each channel offers a maximum data rate of 150Mbps, which means the standard maximum data rate is 600Mbps.

6) IEEE 802.11ac

The ac standard is what you’ll find on most wireless devices at the time of writing. First released in 2014, ac drastically increases data throughput for Wi-Fi devices to a maximum of 1,300 megabits per second. Additionally, the ac adds MU-MIMO support, additional Wi-Fi broadcast channels for the 5GHz band, and support for more antennas on a single router.

7) IEEE 802.11ax

Next up for your router and your wireless devices is the ax standard. When ax completes its rollout, you’ll have access to a theoretical 10Gbps network throughput – an increase of about 30-40 percent over standard ac. In addition, the wireless ax will increase network capacity by adding broadcast sub-channels, increasing MU-MIMO, and enabling more concurrent data flows.

Can All Wi-Fi Standards Communicate?

Two devices using the same Wi-Fi standard can communicate seamlessly. Problems arise, however, when you try to connect two devices that use different and potentially incompatible wireless standards.

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  • Recently, your router and devices using 802.11ac can communicate well and quickly.
  • Devices using 802.11b, g, and n can communicate with ac router.
  • 11b cannot communicate with a, and vice versa.
  • 11g cannot communicate with b, and vice versa.

The original 1997 standard (now known as legacy 802.11) is now obsolete, while standards a and b are nearing the end of their life.

Old Wi-Fi Standard Firmware Issue

When you buy a new device, you make your purchase with the knowledge that when you get it home, it will connect to your router.

It’s the same if you have an old device.

For example, if you bring home a shiny new 802.11ac router to beam Wi-Fi into all dark recesses, that doesn’t mean your old device can suddenly use the ac standard. You’ll receive some router benefits, such as increased range, but your connection is only as fast as a standard Wi-Fi device.

If your device uses 802.11n, it will only connect and transmit using the n standard.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is the Wi-Fi Alliance’s wireless standard naming system. The Wi-Fi Alliance argues that 802.11 terminology confuses consumers. They were right; updating a letter or two doesn’t give the user much information to work with.

The Wi-Fi Alliance naming system runs in tandem with the IEEE 802.11 convention. Here’s how naming standards correlate:

  • Wi-Fi 6:11ax (2019)
  • Wi-Fi 5:11ac (2014)
  • Wi-Fi 4:11n (2009)
  • Wi-Fi 3:11g (2003)
  • Wi-Fi 2:11a (1999)
  • Wi-Fi 1:11b (1999)
  • Legacy: 11 (1997)

What is Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6 became the widespread Wi-Fi standard throughout 2020. But at the end of 2020, another “new” standard began to rise.

Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6. This update allows your Wi-Fi connection to be broadcast over the 6GHz band.

Previously, all Wi-Fi connections were limited to two bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Both frequency bands are busy, with each band split into smaller channels. For example, if you live in an apartment building, you may have multiple Wi-Fi routers trying to broadcast on the same frequency, using the same channel.

This doesn’t mean your data will end up on your neighbor’s computer. That’s not how modern packet switching internet works. But it can cause Wi-Fi performance issues, especially in congested areas.

Wi-Fi 6E creates 14 new 80MHz channels and seven 160MHz channels, drastically increasing the network capacity available to users. Users in dense, congested areas will have more bandwidth available to use, reducing Wi-Fi interference. In short, Wi-Fi 6E effectively doubles the amount of space available for your Wi-Fi connection.

So when can you get your hands on the new Wi-Fi 6E router? The first few routers equipped with Wi-Fi 6E will start appearing throughout 2021, with Netgear one of the first manufacturers to bring them to market.

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