Written by: Jason Gazaway

Upgrading your Wi-Fi hardware is critical to future-proofing your network. When the time for new components is at hand, it is important to select the products that fully support your communication and data transfer wireless_logoneeds. From fiber cabling to Wi-Fi routers, the choices abound and each one can have direct impact on your overall network performance.

Today, we are going to take a look at the foundational 802.11 technologies that can power your network. Despite very similar nomenclature, the varying forms of 802.11 are all quite different.

How to Make Your Choice

Being able to clearly articulate the differences between Wi-Fi options is a must in order to help your management and procurement teams approve the right products for your applications. Following are the factors you will want to educate teams about so that they can effectively evaluate any new wireless purchase:

  • Bandwidth

Bandwidth, measured in terms of Mbps or Gbps, determines the speed with which data can be transmitted across a network. As can be expected, a higher bandwidth rating delivers faster data transmission. Today’s 802.11 technologies offer bandwidths ranging from 11 Mbps to as high as 300 Mbps.

It can be easy to immediately believe you want the maximum bandwidth range but it is important to keep in mind your own use. The higher bandwidths are generally only needed by larger networks or those running intensive applications such as streaming video.

  • Frequency

The frequency, measured in Gigahertz, determines a network’s range. It also directly affects interference by other wireless elements such as cell phones or microwaves or by physical obstacles such as walls. Standard Wi-Fi networks run on either 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz (commonly referred to as only 5 GHz) frequencies.

Frequency is one of those features that definitely does not comply with the “bigger is better” concept. A shorter frequency actually has a longer range, although it is more susceptible to interference from other wireless devices. A longer frequency flip-flops those benefits to provide a shorter range but better protection against other wireless interference. However, 5.8 GHz networks are more likely to be impeded by solid interference.

  • Single or Dual Band

Most Wi-Fi technologies run on only one frequency but some tout the ability to run on both. Before you jump for joy and assume that is the best way to go, you better get the facts.

Technology that includes only one signal but says it is dual band does not actually give you both 2.4 and 5.8 GHz functionality at once—it simply gives you the ability to choose which one you want at any given time. Only 802.11n which leverages multiple antennas actually supports both frequencies simultaneously.

Knowing the different functionalities offered by the key Wi-Fi network features can help you avoid getting caught up in the hype and selecting products just because they sound cooler or better.

The Flavors of 802.11

Wi-Fi technology may not yet come in “31derful” flavors but it certainly does come in quite a few. The groundbreaking 802.11 made its entrance in 1997 with a whopping maximum bandwidth of 2 Mbps (competing Ethernet delivered 11 Mbps). Just two years later, a series of updates to 802.11 began making their way to market, making Wi-Fi a truly viable technology.

Following is an overview of the five most commonly known varieties:

  • 802.11a

This flavor of Wi-Fi provided a giant leapfrog in transmission speeds with bandwidth support for up to 54 Mbps. This option ran on the 5 GHz frequency to make possible reliable use around other wireless signals. Shorter range and greater solid interference highlighted the need for more access points important, especially for dispersed networks. Now a technology of the past, 802.11a was the innovation that allowed enterprise and other businesses to finally justify large-scale wireless implementations.

  • 802.11b

While you would not purchase a new 802.11b router today, you quite likely still have 802.11b products on your network. This Wi-Fi option matched Ethernet speeds at 11 Mbps to give home users a level of functionality that they could really benefit from. The lower 2.4 GHz frequency is more susceptible to wireless interference but travels well through solid blocks and also offers great range.

  • 802.11g

For networks that needed maximum speed and maximum range, the 802.11g delivers. Running on the 2.4 GHz frequency, it supports up to 54Mbps and is backwards compatible with any 802.11b device. 802.11g is still commonly utilized today, in part due to its highly affordable price tag in comparison to newer technologies.

  • 802.11n

This particular version of Wi-Fi runs on what is known as Multiple Input-Multiple Output (MIMO) technology. This basically means that an 802.11n network transmits data through as many as four channels, delivering the fastest network performance yet.

Launched in 2009, it is sometimes called Wireless N and offers up to 300 Mbps bandwidth, better range and less susceptibility to interference. It is backwards compatible with both 802.11b and 802.11g products.

  • 802.11ac

This particular form of Wi-Fi runs is the newest entrant into the world of wireless networks and its own second generation is likely to bring even further enhancements. It could be said that 802.11ac is a hopped-up version of 802.11n with its power for multi-channel broadcasting.

The 802.11ac supports up to eight different channels and runs on the 5GHz platform, though it is compatible with 802.11b, g and n products. As for speed, the theoretical maximums quoted for 802.11ac are not likely to be realized just yet due to limitations of other hardware that may be on a given network.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking element of 802.11ac is what is referred to as beamforming. This allows a router to transmit a message directly to a designated device, not simply over a certain pathway. Beamforming dramatically reduces interference and maintains optimal performance, especially for data-intensive transmissions.

Another item to take in consideration with any wireless product is range. While the environment and other factors can play a part in obtaining optimal ranges with your wireless devices, based on testing there are different approximate ranges for each standard of 801.22 to keep in mind. (Remember, these are approximate and can be affected by interference or other factors in the setup environment.)

802.11 Ranges

(Click to enlarge)

Technology fueling network performance is among some of the most dynamic and complicated for many users to understand. A basic grasp of the different options available for Wi-Fi networks can help simplify decision-making processes.

Integration Matters

When guiding IT, executives and others through new Wi-Fi product choices, it is always important to remind them of how a given product or technology will integrate into the existing infrastructure. As seen with 802.11ac, its maximum theoretical speed may not be achievable without significant upgrades elsewhere along the line. This does not necessarily mean that it is the wrong choice, but setting everyone up with realistic expectations can help prevent frustration down the line.

Be sure to checkout the extensive line of Wireless Aironet equipment and accessories we have available to help your business’s wireless network maintain a high level of security and stability when you and your employees need it.

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