The Ultimate Guide to 802.11 Protocols and When to Use Them

History’s trash heap of obsolete networking technology grows larger each year. Multiterminal systems, minicomputers, proprietary interfaces, sure. But even items implemented a few years ago get passed by in favor of more robust and secure solutions.

According to Dimension Data’s annual Network Barometer Report, 58 percent of network devices are considered current. That’s an 11-percent increase from the previous year — an increase that consigned even more tech to history’s pile.

Wireless protocols yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Which brings us to the ever-expanding list of 802.11 protocols.

It’s more than a dozen entries deep at this point, and more than half-a-dozen are in process. One of the oldest protocols, 802.11b, is on its last legs. The only reason to deploy it now would be to support old handheld scanners or something similar.

Introduced in 1999, 802.11b had a good run. The law of accelerating returns holds that future protocols might not last as long. To provide a concise overview of the protocols, their use cases, and their future, we examined their nearly 20-year history.

802.11a / 5GHz

Purpose – Faster than its incompatible 802.11b counterpart, 802.11a was deployed to corporate environments which could more easily absorb the prohibitive cost of the hardware required to run the standard. Its effectiveness was also limited to a limited range, and brick walls could easily interfere with the signal. 802.11a was sunsetted years ago and holds no relevance for networks today.

Use Case – Still a relatively nascent technology, 802.11a in the workplace allowed team members to remain connected without the need to stretch Ethernet cables across conference room tables or over desks.

802.11b / 2.4GHz

Purpose – Compared to 802.11a’s maximum theoretical bandwidth of 54Mbps, 802.11b’s 11 Mbps bandwidth seems downright anemic. Because of the significant cost difference between deploying the two standards, however, 802.11b is likely the first protocol you used. Many manufacturers supported it in the wireless hardware they created. Chief among them: Apple, who included it in their iBook laptop line under the name AirPort.

Use Case – Users turned to 802.11b for the cost savings. Some offices deployed both 802.11a and 802.11b, reserving the former for conference rooms and computer rooms. In such instances, end-users required 802.11a/b network interface cards for interoperability. Since few saw upgrading an 802.11b location to the still-to-come 802.11g standard as an expensive proposition, 802.11b was in some instances recommended as a placeholder for the faster standard.

802.11g / 2.4GHz

Purpose – An upgrade to its predecessor, this standard used the same 2.4GHz frequency but extended the theoretical maximum bandwidth to 54 Mbps. But there were drawbacks. That bandwidth was limited to relatively short distances and three usable channels; that is, three channels that will not overlap. It’s a low number when you consider that 802.11a allowed up to 12 non-overlapping channels. (802.11b shares the same limitation.) Another drawback: networks sharing b and g frequencies only ran about 1.6 to 2.4 times faster than a network exclusively running 802.11b. Networks leveraging 802.11g alone, though, did run about five times faster.

Use Case – Faster than 802.11b and inexpensive to implement, 802.11g seemed like a no-brainer for many offices. Some lamented the interference issues brought on by the 2.4GHz signal and regarded 802.11a as superior because of the throughput it offered. One problem hitting 802.11a at this time, however, was the fact that many manufacturers focused their research and development on 802.11g (and b) products. This caused 802.11a products to fall behind in quality.

802.11n / 2.4GHz + 5GHz

Purpose – This protocol tried to take the best of 802.11a and 802.11g. It largely succeeds, posting significant improvements on 802.11g in a few areas: 300 Mbps theoretical maximum bandwidth, up from 54 Mbps; a Multiple In Multiple Out (MIMO) approach to multiplying signal capacity; and it worked on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The 5GHz part is important because it is broader, with fewer other devices competing on it. That means less interference than that experienced on the 2.4GHz band.

Use Case – Conversations about whether to go with a or b/g quiet down when 802.11n comes into play. Its dual signal capability eliminates bandwidth contention and helps users pick up a signal even in office spaces packed with obstacles. It also ensures more reliable wireless phone calls and stronger wireless video for office settings.

802.11ac / 5GHz

Purpose – One tech writer described the 802.11ac protocol as the “supercharged” version of 802.11n. One reason: the boost in speed to 1.3 Gbps (again, theoretical) thanks in part to the expansion of the MIMO approach deployed in that earlier version. Though backward compatible with 802.11n (as well as b and g), this protocol is limited to the less-congested 5GHz band. Beamforming, which provides a directional signal instead of one that goes out in all directions and is, therefore, weaker, allows this protocol to circumvent the previous limited-range issue that afflicted 5GHz devices before

Use Case – With speed equal to or better than wired networks, 802.11ac is the standard for the world in which we live: where the ability to achieve wireless connectivity is almost a given with everyone from the CEO to the newest interns. Applications that have grown more demanding in recent years — and will only grow more demanding as time goes by — find in 802.11ac a kindred spirit: bandwidth that delivers even under the heaviest of loads.

802.11ax / 5GHz

Purpose – Work continues on this protocol, which is expected in 2019. Among the advancements it will bring: expanding on 802.11ac’s MIMO technology with MIMO-OFDM (which stands for orthogonal frequency division multiplexing). This protocol promises not only markedly enhanced speed but a more reliable signal than anything that’s been possible before, even under very heavy loads.

Use Case – Faster, less congested, developed with the most current hardware in mind: the future belongs to 802.11ax … at least until IEEE and hardware manufacturers usher in the next standard.

802.11ay / 60GHz

Purpose – Imagine the productivity and cost savings to be had from bringing a corporation’s top leaders together in virtual reality. Or conducting highly technical training with the benefit of augmented reality. Those scenarios and more — mobile offloading, high-bandwidth connectivity to multiple TV and monitor displays, and indoor and outdoor wireless backhaul — will require powerful wireless networks. The 802.11ay protocol aims to deliver. It relies, in part, on the unlicensed 60GHz band as well as techniques such as channel bonding and channel aggregation to deliver a reliable signal that’s also very, very fast by today’s wireless standards: up to 100 Gbps. Ethernet cables need not apply.

Use Case – We’re years away from 802.11ay, so this remains to be determined. Outside of greater speed and power, that is.

802.11az / 60GHz

Purpose – The fact that work on the 802.11az protocol simply underscores the importance of wireless networking professional and personal environments.

Use Case – Specific needs addressed by this standard include enhanced positioning services such as:

  • More precise location guidance, such as to a product on a specific shelf, that does not interfere with the existing infrastructure deployment density.
  • A scalable indoor positioning system for metro stations and stadiums where indoor blockage is a real challenge.
  • Non-AP STA to non-AP STA positioning such as support for peer to peer connectivity and decision making.

There are many other standards. Some implemented, some suspended, and others withdrawn. For official project timelines and more, visit this page updated by members of the official IEEE 802.11 working group.

Keeping current among the never-ending wave of wireless

Despite the daily frustrations and annual forecasting meetings required for maintaining a reliable wireless network, it’s as much a necessity today as are phone numbers and computers. In a well-designed network, productivity gains can far outshine the costs, especially if you have a vendor with a solid handle on future technologies and how they may play into upgrade strategies, scalability, and related issues. CTC Technologies can help. Contact us today for a free consultation about the solution that works best for your needs.