Home and business networkers looking to buy wireless local area network (WLAN) gear face an array of choices. Many products conform to the 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n wireless standards collectively known as Wi-Fi technologies. Additionally, Bluetooth and various other non Wi-Fi technologies also exist, each also designed for specific networking applications.

In 1997, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) created the first WLAN standard. They called it 802.11 after the name of the group formed to oversee its development. Unfortunately, 802.11 only supported a maximum network bandwidth of 2 Mbps – too slow for most applications. For this reason, ordinary 802.11 wireless products are no longer manufactured.

802.11b

IEEE expanded on the original 802.11 standard in July 1999, creating the 802.11b specification. 802.11b supports bandwidth up to 11 Mbps, comparable to traditional Ethernet.

802.11b uses the same unregulated radio signaling frequency (2.4 GHz) as the original 802.11 standard. Vendors often prefer using these frequencies to lower their production costs. Being unregulated, 802.11b gear can incur interference from microwave ovens, cordless phones, and other appliances using the same 2.4 GHz range. However, by installing 802.11b gear a reasonable distance from other appliances, interference can easily be avoided.

  • Pros of 802.11b – lowest cost; signal range is good and not easily obstructed
  • Cons of 802.11b – slowest maximum speed; home appliances may interfere on the unregulated frequency band

802.11a

While 802.11b was in development, IEEE created a second extension to the original 802.11 standard called 802.11a. Because 802.11b gained in popularity much faster than did 802.11a, some folks believe that 802.11a was created after 802.11b. In fact, 802.11a was created at the same time. Due to its higher cost, 802.11a is usually found on business networks whereas 802.11b better serves the home market.

802.11a supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps and signals in a regulated frequency spectrum around 5 GHz. This higher frequency compared to 802.11b shortens the range of 802.11a networks. The higher frequency also means 802.11a signals have more difficulty penetrating walls and other obstructions.

Because 802.11a and 802.11b utilize different frequencies, the two technologies are incompatible with each other. Some vendors offer hybrid 802.11a/b network gear, but these products merely implement the two standards side by side (each connected devices must use one or the other).

  • Pros of 802.11a – fast maximum speed; regulated frequencies prevent signal interference from other devices
  • Cons of 802.11a – highest cost; shorter range signal that is more easily obstructed

802.11g

In 2002 and 2003, WLAN products supporting a newer standard called 802.11g emerged on the market. 802.11g attempts to combine the best of both 802.11a and 802.11b. 802.11g supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps, and it uses the 2.4 Ghz frequency for greater range. 802.11g is backwards compatible with 802.11b, meaning that 802.11g access points will work with 802.11b wireless network adapters and vice versa.

  • Pros of 802.11g – fast maximum speed; signal range is good and not easily obstructed
  • Cons of 802.11g – costs more than 802.11b; appliances may interfere on the unregulated signal frequency

802.11n

The newest IEEE standard in the Wi-Fi category is 802.11n. It was designed to improve on 802.11g in the amount of bandwidth supported by utilizing multiple wireless signals and antennas (called MIMO technology) instead of one.

When this standard is finalized, 802.11n connections should support data rates of over 100 Mbps. 802.11n also offers somewhat better range over earlier Wi-Fi standards due to its increased signal intensity. 802.11n equipment will be backward compatible with 802.11g gear.

  • Pros of 802.11n – fastest maximum speed and best signal range; more resistant to signal interference from outside sources
  • Cons of 802.11n – standard is not yet finalized; costs more than 802.11g; the use of multiple signals may greatly interfere with nearby 802.11b/g based networks.