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Updated 3/10/2005

Home Networking - Wi-Fi Standards

Wi-Fi wireless networking is based on a set of standards collectively known as "IEEE 802.11".

The IEEE 802.11 Working Group for Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN) Standards develops the standards for wireless networking.

The Wi-Fi Alliance tests products based on the 802.11 WLAN standards for interoperability and provides the "Wi-Fi CERTIFIED" logo for certified products.

Primary Standards

Today's Wi-Fi products are based on three "flavors" of 802.11:

  • 802.11b operates in the 2.4 GHz band and operates at a maximum speed of 11 Mbps
  • 802.11g operates in the 2.4 GHz band and operates at a maximum speed of 54 Mbps
  • 802.11a operates in the 5 GHz band and operates at a maximum speed of 54 Mbps

The "11a" and "11b" standards were published in 1999; "11g" was published in 2003.

802.11b and 802.11g operate in the 2.4 GHz frequency band; 11g products are all back-compatible with 11b. 802.11a operates in a completely different frequency band (5 GHz) so "11a-only" products won't work with 11b or 11g. "Dual radio" products operate simultaneously in both bands and support all three standards.

In North American markets, consumer products have been based on 802.11b and 11g, while 11a has been reserved for more-expensive enterprise products. In 2005 we expect to see 11a appearing in consumer products, especially those for video networking. See 802.11a Comes Home (BBHR 10/31/2004) for more information on 11a in Microsoft's Windows Media Edition 2005.

WPA and WMM: Ancillary Standards for Security and QoS

In addition to the primary standards, IEEE 802.11 has developed many ancillary standards. The most important of these for home networking are

  • 802.11i specifies security for 802.11 networking. 802.11i has been adopted by the Wi-Fi Alliance as "Wi-Fi Protected Access" and certified as WPA and WPA2.
  • 802.11e specifies QoS (quality of service) for 802.11 networking. Portions of this draft standard have recently been adopted by the Wi-Fi Alliance as "Wi-Fi Multimedia" and certified as WMM. Dave's talk at SCTE-ET includes several slides showing WMM in action.

802.11n and MIMO

The next-generation Wi-Fi standard will be 802.11n. This developing standard will operate at much higher speeds—the throughput goal is 100 Mbps—and at greater range than current versions of Wi-Fi. 802.11n will be based on a "smart antenna" technology known as MIMO ("multiple input, multiple output").

MIMO technology has started to appear in the latest Wi-Fi products. These operate at considerably higher speeds and provide better range than 11g products. Although some are labelled "Pre-N", they most likely will not be compatible with 802.11n products when they reach the market.

Next: Wi-Fi Context