Digital Communication


Digital Communication

802.11: everything you need to know about Wi-Fi standards


The term 802.11 refers to several wireless LAN standards that are used today by the majority of devices capable of transmitting data. Data rates and transmission speeds have increased significantly since their introduction in 1997.

What is IEEE 802.11?

The term “802.11” or “IEEE 802.11” probably means nothing to you. Yet you come into contact with 802.11 every day. This is indeed how Wi-Fi standards are referred to, i.e. the connection of media to the bit transmission layer in a local radio network. The 802.11 standard was first published in 1997 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and was quickly integrated into various devices. Today, IEEE 802.11 is the best known and most used standard for wireless networks. There are several generations of wireless local area networks.

The difference between Wi-Fi and 802.11

Sure, 802.11 is sometimes used as a synonym for “Wi-Fi,” but that’s not entirely true. Wi-Fi is initially a wireless Ethernet, that is to say a local area network that works without cables. To set up such a network, the 802.11 standard is necessary. This one defines the physical layer in a wireless LAN and provides access to this layer. In principle, it is also possible to use another technique to set up such a network. However, because the IEEE 802.11 standard is so widely used, it is often associated with the term Wi-Fi.

The evolution of IEEE 802.11

Since its introduction in 1997, the 802.11 standard has continued to evolve. Thus, the variants differ in terms of their transmission rates and are sometimes incompatible with each other. Some Wi-Fi standards are no longer relevant today and are therefore no longer used. For example, the first variant called 802.11-1997 revolutionized the world of wireless networks, but its maximum speed of 1 or 2 Mbits per second is no longer really relevant. The IEEE 802.11be standard must be certified in 2024 and will be able to reach 45.1 Gbits per second.

Comparison of Wi-Fi standards

Looking at the Wi-Fi standards still in use today, there are big differences. Most devices use IEEE 802.11n (also known as Wi-Fi 4), IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), or IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6 or 6E). Their specifications are as follows:

IEEE 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6/6E)
Theoretical transfer rate 300 Mbps 867 Mbps 1200 Mbps
Maximum transfer rate 600 Mbps 6,936 Mbps 9,608 Mbps
Scope Up to 100m Up to 50m Up to 50m
Frequency range 2.4GHZ + 5GHz 5GHz 2.4GHZ + 5GHz + 6GHz
Transmitting and receiving units 4×4 8×8 8×8
Channel width Up to 40MHz Up to 160MHz Up to 160MHz
Modulation method 64 QAM 256 QAM 1024QAM

Transmission speeds of 802.11

The maximum transmission speeds of different 802.11 standards also vary. Here you will find a list of the variants still currently in use compared to the starting standard:

IEEE 802.11 (WiFi 1) IEEE 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6/6E)
Frequency 2.4GHz 2.4GHz + 5GHz 5GHz 2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz
Flow 1 1, 2, 3, 4 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
For a channel width of 20 MHz Up to 2 Mbps Up to 300 MBit/s Up to 574 Mbps
For a channel width of 40 MHz Up to 600 Mbps Up to 1144 MBit/s
For a channel width of 80 MHz Up to 3400 Mbps Up to 4,804 MBit/s
For a channel width of 160 MHz Up to 6,936 Mbps Up to 9,608 MBit/s

It should be noted, however, that these maximum transfer rates are generally not affected. With the 802.11 standard, it’s not just theoretical performance that plays a role: the conditions under which transmission takes place are just as important. Other networks, large distances, thick walls and ceilings or other obstacles can significantly slow down the transmission speed, which explains why half of the theoretical speed is often not achieved. Transmission according to the 802.11 standard uses a shared channel that is used simultaneously by several participants. This also has an impact on the actual speed.

There are other interesting network standards:

  • IEEE 802.1X: a standard for authentication in networks
  • IEEE 802.3af: Power over Ethernet capability

You will also find an overview of the different types of networks in the Digital Guide.

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