The evolution of Wi-Fi standards: a look at 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax
When you’re looking to buy new wireless networking gear to set up your home Wi-Fi network, commercial Wi-Fi network or to buy a mobile device, you’re faced with an array of choices and abbreviations. The technology surrounding Wi-Fi being the biggest offender when it comes to abbreviations and numerous naming structures.
Since Wi-Fi was first released to consumers in 1997, Wi-Fi standards have been continually evolving – typically resulting in faster speeds and further coverage. With every new capability comes a name change to set the standards apart. As capabilities are added to the original IEEE 802.11 standard, they become known by their amendment (802.11b, 802.11g, etc.).
In 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance took steps to make Wi-Fi standards names easier to identify and understand (Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, etc.).
What would have been known as the “802.11ax standard” is now easier to understand as “Wi-Fi 6.” To follow the new naming structure, the Wi-Fi Alliance re-named the two previous standards (802.11n and 802.11ac) to Wi-Fi 4 and 5.The order of all of the Wi-Fi standards from 1999 to present are as follows (click on any to take you right to that section):
Here’s a deeper dive into each Wi-Fi standard over the years and the difference between them:
802.11b used the same 2.4 GHz frequency as the original 802.11 standard. It supported a maximum theoretical rate of 11 Mbps and had a range up to 150 feet.
802.11b components were inexpensive, but the standard had the slowest maximum speed of all the 802.11 standards. And since 802.11b operated in the 2.4 GHz, home appliances or other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi networks could cause interference.
Eventually, 802.11n standard (what would become Wi-Fi 4) came along to replace 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g as the new local network standard (WLAN). (More on Wi-Fi 4 later.)
Today, routers that only support 802.11n are no longer manufactured.
Why did 802.11b come before 802.11a?
The ‘a’ amendment to the standard was released at the same time as 802.11b. But it introduced a more complex technique, known as OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) for generating the wireless signal.
In other words, 802.11a offered a few advantages over 802.11b:
- It operated in the less crowded 5 GHz frequency band, making it less prone to interference.
- Its bandwidth was much higher than 802.11b, with a theoretical max of 54 Mbps.
You probably haven’t encountered many 802.11a devices or routers. This is because 802.11b devices were cheaper and became more popular in the consumer market. 802.11a was mainly used in business applications.
The 802.11g standard used the same OFDM technology introduced with 802.11a. Like 802.11a, it supported a maximum theoretical rate of 54 Mbps. But like 802.11b, it operated in the crowded 2.4 GHz frequency (and thus was subject to the same interference issues as 802.11b).
802.11g was backward compatible with 802.11b devices: an 802.11b device could connect to an 802.11g access point (but at 802.11b speeds).
With 802.11g, consumers enjoyed a significant advance in Wi-Fi speeds and coverage. At the same time, consumer wireless routers were getting better, with higher power and better coverage than earlier generations.
802.11n (Wi-Fi 4)
With the 802.11n standard, Wi-Fi became even faster and more reliable. It supported a maximum theoretical transfer rate of 300 Mbps (and could reach up to 450 Mbps when using three antennae).
802.11n used MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) where multiple transmitters/receivers could operate simultaneously at one or both ends of the link to a single device. This provided a significant increase in data without needing a higher bandwidth or transmit power.
802.11n operated in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands
802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)
802.11ac supercharged Wi-Fi, with speeds ranging from 433 Mbps all the way up to several Gigabits per second. To achieve this kind of performance, 802.11ac:
- Worked exclusively in the 5 GHz band
- Supported up to eight spatial streams (compared with 802.11n’s four streams)
- Doubled the channel width up to 80 MHz
- Used a technology called beamforming
With beamforming, the antennae basically transmit the radio signals, so they’re directed at a specific device.
Another significant advancement with 802.11ac was multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO). While MIMO directs multiple streams to a single client, MU-MIMO can direct the spatial streams to multiple devices simultaneously.
While MU-MIMO doesn’t increase the speed to any single client, it can increase the overall data throughput of the entire network.
Wi-Fi 5 was a big step for Wi-Fi evolution. Now, Wi-Fi is taking another big leap from 5 to 6.
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
The newest generation Wi-Fi standard is Wi-Fi 6. We were used to Wi-Fi 5 being supercharged with changes, and now Wi-Fi 6 offers even more.
- Has improvements similar to 5G.
- Avoids traffic congestion in public spaces.
- Offers higher data rates and capacity, up to 9.6 Gbps.
- Offers better 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum support.
- Offers increase in multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) from 4 x 4 to 8 x 8.
- Overall, promises better and faster performance.
- Allows you to connect even more devices in your home.
Unlike past standards, Wi-Fi 6 allows one router to handle more antennas. Which means one router can connect to more devices.
Wi-Fi 6 is designed to make wireless internet better in homes and in public.
You might see Wi-Fi 6E on some devices. The thing you need to know about Wi-Fi 6E is that it is the same as Wi-Fi 6 except for one thing: the frequency band that it can extend to. Wi-Fi 6E supports an all-new 6GHz frequency, which has higher throughputs and lower latency.
Projected for 2024:
Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be)
Although Wi-Fi 6 just released to the public, there is already talk about Wi-Fi 7 and what’s to come in the next few years.
Essentially, as history shows, what we can expect is:
- Even faster speeds
- Better range
- Decongested traffic
- Supporting multiple bands at once
- More data squeezed into 4096-QAM (radio signal) to improve home Wi-Fi networks
While Wi-Fi keeps advancing, sometimes it’s not enough on its own. There are devices that can help make your home Wi-Fi experience even better.