Wireless Confusion

Listen to the podcast Question: What is the deal with WiFi alphabet? What is the difference between 802.11 a,b,g, and n? The IT Guy says: WiFi is the generic name for the kind of wireless networking technology used in home, schools, and businesses. The standard for the technology is set by an
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Question: What is the deal with WiFi alphabet? What is the difference between 802.11 a,b,g, and n?

The IT Guy says:
WiFi is the generic name for the kind of wireless networking technology used in home, schools, and businesses. The standard for the technology is set by an international group called the IEEE, or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The standard was originally just called by a number – 802.11. (I know – truly inspiring!) The purpose of the standard is to come up with technologies that be used to make products that will work together, regardless of which company built it.

However, as needs and technologies changed, the IEEE has made several updates to the standard to allow new and improved variations. The differences are these –

802.11 a and b – 802.11 a and b were added to the standards at the same time in 1999, but b was first to the market because it was less complicated and cheaper to manufacture. The most obvious difference between the two is speed, with b slower at 11 mb per second, while a runs up to 54 mb per second. A second, less-obvious difference is the radio frequency used. 802.11b operates in the same band as many cordless phones, baby monitors, and other similar products, so can suffer from interference. The a system uses a different, clearer frequency. Most products sold now that use the better a system are actually a/b, so they can work with either kind of product.

802.11 g – The g standard splits the difference between a and b – it has the speed of a but uses the radio frequency of b. It has the advantage of being compatible with the earlier b products, but the disadvantage of being in the same crowded radio frequency.

802.11 n – This standard isn't actually done yet, but some companies are jumping the gun and coming out with products that match the draft standard. It will operate at a much higher speed (up to 300 mb per second), and use both sets of radio frequencies used by a, b, and n.

So there is a method to the alphabet madness (although I don't know why they jump around the alphabet that way). The newest n standard is expected to be done in September 2008, and that will open the door to many new kinds of wireless applications, including streaming high-quality video and wireless thin clients. Of course, it will also mean a whole new round of upgrading and replacement!

Next Tip: What is WiMAX?

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