What is Wi-Fi? What Are All Those Letters and Numbers Anyway?

In 2002, wireless networking was very rare. Today it’s almost everywhere. In the last ten years there have been different standards, different devices, and a lot of letters and numbers. How did we get here, and what do you really need to know?

First things first. If you have something in your house with a plug, jack, connector, cable or adapter, it’s been standardized by one of three organizations. The International Standards Organization (ISO) certifies everything from the size of a CD to the way that meat is stored. When it comes to electronics, they generally leave the hard work to the German national authority Deutsches Institut für Normung or DIN. Electronics standards coming from Europe usually have DIN’s fingerprints all over them.

Most electronic components started in the US, however, than that’s why the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has such a strong part in coming up with standards. They were the ones who created the first standard for wireless networking in 1997. Engineers love numbers and they named their standard 802.11. It wasn’t until a bunch of savvy marketers came along five years later that the term Wi-Fi was coined.

Enough pre-history. Ten years later, there are four standards for Wi-Fi, and they go by the letters A, B, G, and N. (Actually it’s 802.11a, 802.11b… etc. But that’s not important right now.) What happened to the other letters? They’re like baseball players that never got off the bench. Many devices will automatically switch from one to the other as needed, so why should you care?

Here’s the lowdown.

802.11a


This is a 1999 Porsche. Pretty fast for its day. But it wasn’t easy to use. Kind of like 802.11a.

Wireless “a” networking, properly called 802.11a, was designed to give “fast” transfers. In 1999 terms, fast meant 54Mbps, or the ability to transfer a typical song in about a minute. 802.11a required a lot of setup and wasn’t very flexible. Most of the time it never got up to that fast speed.

802.11b

This is a 1999 Smart car. Easy to use but slow, slow, slow. Kind of like 802.11b. But hey, better than nothing.

The 802.11b standard was created at the same time as 802.11a, but the goal was very different. 802.11b tops out at 11Mbps, meaning that it might take 5 minutes to download a 3 minute song. On the other hand, it was very easy to configure and there was a lot more equipment that worked with it.

802.11g


This is a 2003 Mustang. About as fast as a Porsche and not nearly as embarrassing as a Smart. The best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, back in the early 2000s, if you wanted wireless networking you had to choose between the problems with wireless-A and the problems with wireless-B. And the biggest problem was, you couldn’t have both. Some companies were “A,” some were “B.”. So, the Wi-Fi alliance worked with the IEEE to come up with one standard that was as fast as “A” but as flexible as “B.” They called it “G.” The good news is that the same chips that gave you “G” performance could also give you compatibility with your older equipment. Finally! Of course, nothing’s perfect….

802.11n


Finally! I don’t have to get off the internet whenever I want popcorn!

By the late 2000s, a lot of wireless-G hardware was sold. It was fast enough for internet access and easy enough that most people could set it up. For home networking, though… it was a disaster waiting to happen. Why? Because it just so happens that the same frequencies used by wireless-G are used by a lot of other things, like microwaves, cordless phones, remote controls… imagine getting kicked off the internet every time you get a phone call.

The answer… wireless-N. It took until 2009 for everyone to agree on the standards, but wireless-N gives speeds up to 600MBit, which is still a bajillion times faster than your actual internet speeds. Wireless-N has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. It can automatically switch to a frequency that won’t be bothered by your microwave. It has a range measured in miles if you set it up right. It can leap small buildings in a single bound. It can solve complex math equations without a calculator. It can…

So what’s the problem?


Kryptonite. It’s not a real thing but if it were it would look like this.

The problem is that in order to do all the cool stuff that wireless-N promises, you need to do some work. In a lot of ways, we’re back to wireless-A all over again. The good news is that most wireless-N hardware will work just fine out of the box, and it will automatically communicate with older A, B, or G devices. The trade-off is that by making it easy, they take away a lot of the power. Being compatible with all that old stuff… it’s wireless-N’s kryptonite.In fact, most cheap wireless-N routers are worse than wireless-G. Go figure that out.

In order to get the really good stuff out of wireless-N, you need to start with the right hardware. Make sure that whatever you buy will work with dual-band hardware. That means it can automatically shift out of the way of microwaves or remotes. If all your hardware is wireless-N compatible, you can even turn off the 2.4GHz band and just do everything in the much better 5GHz band. Then there are the channels.


If you want a lot of data, you need a big pipe. Even people in black and white days knew that.

All wireless communications use channels that are 20MHz wide. In other words, think of a channel like a piece of pipe. No matter what you do, you’re not going to get the same amount of water through a half-inch pipe as you do through a three-quarter-inch pipe. You can up the pressure but then the pipe breaks. If you have nothing but wireless-N hardware, you can switch to 40MHz channels and that really opens things up.

The sacrifice is, if you do all this your really old stuff won’t work wirelessly. But hey, didn’t you want new stuff anyway? So go ahead, go wireless-N and turn off those compatibility features. You’ll be glad you did, and besides…


OK this doesn’t have a lot to do with networking. But you know when they’re working on the wireless-ac standard they’re listening to “Back in Black.”

We’re still a few years away from Wireless-ac, which is the next standard. By then you’ll have enough money to do it all over again! The Wireless-ac standard isn’t final yet, but it looks like it’s going be insanely fast and maybe a little easier to configure than Wireless N.

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