802.11: Wi-Fi speeds and standards explained


In the world of wireless, the term Wi-Fi is synonymous with wireless access in general, despite the fact that it is a specific trademark owned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a group dedicated to certifying that Wi-Fi products meet the IEEE’s set of 802.11 wireless standards.

These standards, with names such as 802.11b (pronounced “Eight-O-Two-Eleven-Bee”, ignore the “dot”) and 802.11ac, comprise a family of specifications that started in the 1990s and continues to grow today. The 802.11 standards codify improvements that boost wireless throughput and range as well as the use of new frequencies as they  become available. They also address new technologies that reduce power consumption.

What is Wi-Fi 6? Wi-Fi 5? Wi-Fi 4?

The IEEE naming scheme for the standard is a little tough to get used to, and in an effort to make it easier to understand, the Wi-Fi Alliance has come up with some simpler names.

Under its naming convention, the alliance calls 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6. 802.11ac is now Wi-Fi 5, and 802.11n is Wi-Fi 4. The idea, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, is to make matching endpoint and router capabilities a simpler matter for the rank-and-file user of Wi-Fi technology.

Meanwhile it’s important to know that the Wi-Fi Alliance has not made up simpler names for all the 802.11 standars, so it’s important to be familiar with the traditional designations. Also, the IEEE, which continues to work on newer versions of 802.11, has not adopted these new names, so trying to track down details about them using the new names will make the task more complicated.

The traditional names of these standards create quite an alphabet soup, made all-the-more confusing because they are not arranged alphabetically. To help clarify the situation, here’s an update on these physical-layer standards within 802.11, listed in reverse chronological order, with the newest standards at the top, and the oldest toward the bottom. After that is a description of standards that are still in the works.

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