From the early days of dial-up internet to today’s ultra-fast connections, the internet has come a long way over the past two decades. It has evolved from an expensive luxury to a technology that most of us can’t live without. Wi-Fi now has different bands and channels, which can confuse the average user. These are then segregated into Wi-Fi standards.
With each new standard, we have seen improvements in speed, range, and connectivity. However, the sheer number of Wi-Fi standards and specifications can be overwhelming and confusing. That is why we have created this comprehensive guide to help you understand everything you need to know about Wi-Fi standards.
In This Article
What are Wi-Fi Standards
Wi-Fi standards are specifications that define the technology and protocols used for wireless communication over Local Area Networks (LANs). These standards are developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and are denoted by a set of numbers such as “802.11” followed by one of two alphabets indicating a specific variation of the standard.
For example, you will find Wi-Fi standards written as “802.11ax”
Before we dig into the different Wi-Fi standards that exist today, and what each of them means, let us see why these standards are important to have in the first place.
Why are Wi-Fi Standards Important
Wi-Fi standards are important because they help to ensure that all Wi-Fi-enabled devices work together smoothly and are compatible with one another. They also ensure that Wi-Fi devices are secure and can protect against hacking and unauthorized access.
Without these standards, our wireless world would be a chaotic and confusing place, with devices struggling to communicate with each other and frustrating us with slow speeds and dropped connections.
Think of Wi-Fi standards as a set of rules that all Wi-Fi devices follow when they communicate with each other. These rules include how fast data can be sent and received, how far signals can travel, and how devices identify and connect. These standards make sure that all Wi-Fi devices can communicate with each other seamlessly, even if they are made by different manufacturers.
Types of Wi-Fi Standards
These standards are constantly evolving and improving, with new versions being released every few years. Each new version brings faster speeds, longer ranges, and better performance. However, not all Wi-Fi standards are the same, and some are better suited for specific uses than others.
The chart below reveals the major features of each Wi-Fi standard.
|IEEE Wi-Fi Standard||Alliance Name||Release Year||Frequency Bands||Maximum Data Rate||Non-Overlapping Channels||Key Features|
|802.11a||Wi-Fi 1||1999||5 GHz||54 Mbps||24 (20MHz channels)|
12 (40MHz channels)
|Operates in the less crowded 5 GHz band, has faster speeds, and shorter range compared to 802.11b.|
|802.11b||Wi-Fi 2||1999||2.4 GHz||11 Mbps||3||Widely adopted, suitable for home and small office environments.|
|802.11g||Wi-Fi 3||2003||2.4 GHz||54 Mbps||3||Backward-compatible with 802.11b, improved speed and range, suitable for home and small office environments.|
|802.11n||Wi-Fi 4||2009||2.4 GHz and 5 GHz||600 Mbps||3 (2.4GHz)|
24 (20MHz channels, 5GHz)
12 (40MHz channels, 5GHz)
|Improved speeds and range, multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology, suitable for multimedia streaming and enterprise networks.|
|802.11ac||Wi-Fi 5||2014||5 GHz||1.3 Gbps||24 (20MHz channels)|
12 (40MHz channels)
|Operates in the less crowded 5 GHz band, wider channels, multiple MIMO streams, and beamforming technology, suitable for high-bandwidth applications.|
|802.11ax||Wi-Fi 6||2019||2.4 GHz and 5 GHz||10 to 12 Gbps||Increased network capacity and efficiency, support for crowded environments, advanced technologies like OFDMA, MU-MIMO, and TWT, and improved performance for multiple devices simultaneously.||An incremental improvement over Wi-Fi 6, focus on higher performance and efficiency, faster data transfer rates, improved reliability, and lower latency.|
|802.11be||Wi-Fi 7||TBD (Expected completion by 2024-2025)||2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz||40 Gbps||14 (80MHz channels)|
28 (40Mhz channels)
|An incremental improvement over Wi-Fi 6, focuses on higher performance and efficiency, faster data transfer rates, improved reliability, and lower latency.|
Now let us take a look at these individual Wi-Fi standards in detail.
The 802.11a Wi-Fi standard emerged as an advancement in wireless networking. Operating in the less congested 5 GHz frequency band, 802.11a offered several notable advantages. With a maximum data rate of 54 Mbps, it provided significantly faster wireless connectivity compared to its predecessor.
The higher frequency band allowed for more available channels and reduced interference, resulting in improved performance in environments with multiple Wi-Fi devices. Although 802.11a had a shorter range compared to 802.11b due to higher frequency attenuation, it found its niche in applications requiring higher data throughput, such as multimedia streaming and enterprise networks.
While 802.11b gained wider popularity due to its compatibility and longer range, 802.11a demonstrated the potential of utilizing higher frequency bands for enhanced performance, paving the way for future Wi-Fi standards with even higher speeds and more advanced features.
Introduced in 1999, concurrently with 802.11a, 802.11b was a groundbreaking Wi-Fi standard that gained widespread adoption. It operated in the 2.4 GHz frequency band, which allowed for compatibility with various devices and enhanced range. This standard offered a maximum data rate of 11 Mbps, enabling relatively faster wireless connectivity compared to its predecessors.
The 2.4 GHz frequency band used by 802.11b provided good penetration through walls and other obstacles, making it suitable for home and small office environments. Despite its lower data rate by today’s standards, 802.11b played a crucial role in popularizing Wi-Fi technology and paved the way for subsequent advancements in wireless networking.
In 2003, the 802.11g Wi-Fi standard was introduced as a significant improvement over its predecessor, 802.11b. One of the notable features of 802.11g was its backward compatibility with 802.11b, allowing devices supporting 802.11g to connect seamlessly with devices using 802.11b. This compatibility facilitated the smooth transition and adoption of the new standard.
Operating in the 2.4 GHz frequency band like 802.11b, 802.11g offered a maximum data rate of 54 Mbps, providing a significant boost in speed. This higher data rate allowed for faster wireless connections. As a result, it enabled activities such as web browsing, file sharing, and video streaming with greater efficiency.
802.11g inherited the range capabilities of 802.11b, making it suitable for home and small office environments. The 2.4 GHz frequency band provided good signal penetration through walls and other obstacles, ensuring reliable connectivity within a reasonable distance.
With its improved speed and compatibility, 802.11g quickly gained popularity and became widely adopted. This offered the users enhanced wireless performance while maintaining interoperability with existing devices. It served as a bridge between the earlier 802.11b standard and the subsequent advancements in Wi-Fi technology and prepared the ground for faster and more advanced standards that would follow.
Six years after the rollout of 802.11g, in 2009, the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard marked a significant leap forward in wireless networking. It was designed to deliver faster speeds and greater range than its predecessors while maintaining backward compatibility with earlier Wi-Fi standards.
802.11n operates in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, providing flexibility in selecting the frequency band that best suits the environment and minimizing interference. Additionally, it utilizes multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which enables the use of multiple antennas for transmitting and receiving data, resulting in enhanced data throughput and improved reliability.
Its major advantage is its higher maximum data rate, which can vary from 150 Mbps to 600 Mbps, depending on the number of spatial streams. Spatial streams refer to the number of data streams transmitted simultaneously by the antennas, with each additional spatial stream increasing the potential data rate.
The improved speed and range of 802.11n made it particularly suitable for high-bandwidth applications such as streaming high-definition video and online gaming, as well as in enterprise settings with a large number of devices and high traffic.
802.11n quickly gained popularity and became the dominant Wi-Fi standard, thanks to its ability to deliver faster and more reliable wireless connections. Even today, it remains widely used in many applications and devices, although newer standards have since surpassed its performance in terms of speed and features.
In 2014, the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, commonly referred to as Wi-Fi 5, made its debut, introducing major advancements in wireless connectivity. This standard operates exclusively in the 5 GHz frequency band, providing a less crowded spectrum with less interference compared to the 2.4 GHz band used by previous standards.
802.11ac brought notable improvements in speed and capacity compared to its predecessor, 802.11n. It achieved this by supporting wider channels, multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) streams, and beamforming technology. Wider channels allowed for the transmission of larger chunks of data, resulting in increased throughput.
Multiple Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) streams allowed for simultaneous data transmission and reception using multiple antennas, enhancing overall performance and enabling higher data rates. Beamforming technology further optimized the wireless signal by directing it toward the intended recipient, improving coverage and reliability.
The data rates provided by 802.11ac varied, depending on factors such as channel width, the number of MIMO streams, and the capabilities of the devices involved. Speeds could range from 433 Mbps for a single stream setup to several gigabits per second (Gbps) in advanced configurations.
802.11ac quickly gained popularity due to its ability to handle high-bandwidth tasks such as streaming 4K video, online gaming, and transferring large files more efficiently. It became the go-to choice for devices demanding faster and more reliable wireless connections.
While subsequent standards have been introduced since 802.11ac, it remains a prevalent and widely used Wi-Fi standard, especially in devices that primarily operate in the 5 GHz bands. Its performance improvements have paved the way for even faster and more advanced Wi-Fi standards that followed.
802.11ax, commonly known as Wi-Fi 6, is the latest Wi-Fi standard. It provides higher speeds, greater capacity, and better performance in crowded environments. Its adoption is increasing rapidly, and it is expected to become the standard for wireless networking in the coming years.
Wi-Fi 6 can operate in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, which provides greater flexibility in selecting the frequency band that best suits the environment. Moreover, it utilizes advanced technologies such as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA). It enables multiple devices to transmit and receive data simultaneously to increase network efficiency and reduce latency.
It also offers higher data rates per user, thanks to the use of Multi-User Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO) technology, which enables simultaneous data transmission to multiple devices using multiple antennas. Additionally, it utilizes Target Wake Time (TWT) technology, allowing devices to schedule their data transmissions and save battery power, resulting in longer battery life for devices.
This Wi-Fi standard can support a large number of connected devices without compromising network performance. It does this by using techniques such as Basic Service Set (BSS) coloring. It allows devices to differentiate between other devices on the network, reducing interference and improving network efficiency.
In 2020, an enhanced version of the Wi-Fi 6 standard was released, Wi-Fi 6E, operating in the 6GHz frequency band rather than the traditional 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. This upgrade brings several significant benefits to wireless networking. It utilizes the 6GHz spectrum and offers a substantial amount of extra bandwidth and allows for faster speeds and improved performance, especially in crowded areas such as public spaces.
Wi-Fi 6E is available on more channels without overlap or interference. This leads to enhanced stability and reduced latency, making it ideal for bandwidth-intensive applications like augmented reality, virtual reality, and streaming high-resolution content.
Moreover, the 6GHz spectrum used by Wi-Fi 6E is less congested compared to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for improved network speeds and reliability. With its support for technologies like MU-MIMO, OFDMA, and transmit beamforming, Wi-Fi 6E maximizes efficiency and reduces congestion.
Note: Wi-Fi 6E retains all the features and capabilities of Wi-Fi 6, including the support for WPA3 security and compatibility with existing Wi-Fi 6 devices. The introduction of Wi-Fi 6E ensures that devices on both ends, including routers and consumer devices, can take advantage of the 6GHz band and benefit from the latest Wi-Fi advancements.
802.11be, also known as Wi-Fi 7, is the anticipated future iteration of the Wi-Fi standard. As an amendment to the original 802.11 standards, it focuses on enhancing the features introduced in previous Wi-Fi standards, particularly Wi-Fi 6. Its technical designation, IEEE 802.11be, indicates its incremental improvement and evolution.
The primary goal of 802.11be, nicknamed Extremely High Throughput (EHT), is to provide even higher levels of performance and efficiency in wireless networking. It aims to deliver faster data transfer rates, improved reliability, and lower latency compared to its predecessors. By building upon the foundation established by Wi-Fi 6, 802.11be aims to push the boundaries of wireless connectivity further.
The development of 802.11be is expected to be completed by 2024 or 2025, but it may take an additional one to two years for widespread adoption and implementation in mainstream devices and networks. During this period, the standard will undergo thorough testing and refinement to ensure its compatibility, reliability, and security.
How to Check Supported Wi-Fi Standards on Windows
If you wonder what type of Wi-Fi standard your device’s network adapter supports, you can easily find it from the Device Manager. Most modern wireless network adapters have the Wi-Fi standard written in their name. Using this information, you can find the standard your device uses, using these steps:
Open the Device Manager by typing in “devmgmt.msc” in the Run Command box.
Expand “Network Adapters.”
Look for the wireless network adapter. You will find the supported Wi-Fi standard in this name, as in this image:
Find the Backward Compatibility of your Wi-Fi Standard via Command Prompt
You can also find the backward compatibility of your device’s Wi-Fi standard using the Command Prompt. Here is how:
Open “Command Prompt” and enter the following command:
netsh wlan show drivers
Look for the “Radio types supported” field. This will display the Wi-Fi standard and its backward compatibility.
How to Set Wi-Fi Standard and Band on Windows
Although a wireless network adapter has a supported Wi-Fi standard, you can also set its “Wireless Mode” to another standard if it is backward compatible. Additionally, you can also choose a specific band to use.
This is useful in scenarios where you have an adapter that supports multiple standards, but your wireless router only supports one of them. Changing the wireless mode will ensure that your computer only uses that specific Wi-Fi standard.
To set your Wi-Fi standard and band, use the following steps:
Open the Device Manager by typing in “devmgmt.msc” in the Run Command box.
Expand “Network Adapters.”
Right-click the wireless network adapter and click Properties.
Switch to the Advanced tab and click “Preferred Band.” Then select the frequency band from the drop-down menu.
Now select “Wireless Mode” and set a Wi-Fi standard from the drop-down menu.
Click Ok when done.
Understanding the intricacies of Wi-Fi standards is vital in navigating the ever-expanding world of wireless connectivity. Wi-Fi standards are crucial because they lay the foundation for the speed, range, and reliability of our wireless networks. They dictate how quickly we can stream our favorite movies, engage in online gaming, or collaborate with colleagues across the globe.
So, whether you are a tech enthusiast or a casual user, arming yourself with knowledge about Wi-Fi standards allows you to optimize your wireless experience and unlock the full potential of the digital world we inhabit.