Since the dawn of time or at least as long as we can recall different generations of Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) technology or simply, WiFi, has been known by its industry standard designations IEEE 802.11 dot something.
In the world of wireless, the term Wi-Fi is synonymous with wireless access in general, despite the fact that it is a specific trademark owned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a group dedicated to certifying that Wi-Fi products meet the IEEE’s set of 802.11 wireless standards.
These standards, with names such as 802.11b (pronounced “Eight-O-Two-Eleven-Bee”, ignore the “dot”) and 802.11ac, comprise a family of specifications that started in the 1990s and continues to grow today. The 802.11 standards codify improvements that boost wireless throughput and range as well as the use of new frequencies as they become available. They also address new technologies that reduce power consumption.
You can now forget all these confusing alphabet soups of initials and 802.11 numbers because the Wi-Fi Alliance have adopted consumer friendly naming conventions.
The new naming system is said to identify Wi-Fi generations by a “numerical sequence which correspond to major advancements in Wi-Fi” (i.e. that’s a roundabout way of saying 1, 2, 3 etc.). For example, the very latest 802.11ax standard will now simply be called Wi-Fi 6, which is certainly simpler, but we dare say that most enthusiasts will merely shrug their shoulders and let out a muted sigh.
For nearly two decades, Wi-Fi users have had to sort through technical naming conventions to determine if their devices support the latest Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi Alliance is excited to introduce Wi-Fi 6, and present a new naming scheme to help industry and Wi-Fi users easily understand the Wi-Fi generation supported by their device or connection.
Edgar Figueroa, President and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance.
What is Wi-Fi 6? Wi-Fi 5? Wi-Fi 4?
The IEEE naming scheme for the standard is a little tough to get used to, and in an effort to make it easier to understand, the Wi-Fi Alliance has come up with some simpler names.
Under its naming convention, the alliance calls 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6. 802.11ac is now Wi-Fi 5, and 802.11n is Wi-Fi 4.
Meanwhile it’s important to know that the Wi-Fi Alliance has not made up simpler names for all the 802.11 standards, so it’s important to be familiar with the traditional designations. Also, the IEEE, which continues to work on newer versions of 802.11, has not adopted these new names, so trying to track down details about them using the new names will make the task more complicated.
The traditional names of these standards create quite an alphabet soup, made all-the-more confusing because they are not arranged alphabetically. To help clarify the situation, here’s an update on these physical-layer standards within 802.11, listed in reverse chronological order, with the newest standards at the top, and the oldest toward the bottom. After that is a description of standards that are still in the works.
Also known as Wi-Fi HaLow, 802.11ah defines operation of license-exempt networks in frequency bands below 1GHz (typically the 900 MHz band), excluding the TV White Space bands. In the U.S., this includes 908-928MHz, with varying frequencies in other countries. The purpose of 802.11ah is to create extended-range Wi-Fi networks that go beyond typical networks in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz space (remember, lower frequency means longer range), with data speeds up to 347Mbps. In addition, the standard aims to have lower energy consumption, useful for Internet of Things devices to communicate across long ranges without using a lot of energy. But it also could compete with Bluetooth technologies in the home due to its lower energy needs. The protocol was approved in September 2016 and published in May 2017.
Approved in December 2012, 802.11ad is very fast – it can provide up to 6.7Gbps of data rate across the 60 GHz frequency, but that comes at a cost of distance – you achieve this only if your client device is situated within 3.3 meters of the access point.
802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)
Current home wireless routers are likely 802.1ac-compliant and operate in the 5 GHz frequency space. With Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) – multiple antennas on sending and receiving devices to reduce error and boost speed – this standard supports data rates up to 3.46Gbps. Some router vendors include technologies that support the 2.4GHz frequency via 802.11n, providing support for older client devices that may have 802.11b/g/n radios, but also providing additional bandwidth for improved data rates.
802.11n (Wi-Fi 4)
The first standard to specify MIMO, 802.11n was approved in October 2009 and allows for usage in two frequencies – 2.4GHz and 5GHz, with speeds up to 600Mbps. When you hear wireless LAN vendors use the term “dual-band”, it refers to being able to deliver data across these two frequencies.
Approved in June 2003, 802.11g was the successor to 802.11b, able to achieve up to 54Mbps rates in the 2.4GHz band, matching 802.11a speed but within the lower frequency range.
The first “letter” following the June 1997 approval of the 802.11 standard, this one provided for operation in the 5GHz frequency, with data rates up to 54Mbps. Counterintuitively, 802.11a came out later than 802.11b, causing some confusion in the marketplace because consumers expected that the standard with the “b” at the end would be backward compatible with the one with the “a” at the end.
Released in September 1999, it’s most likely that your first home router was 802.11b, which operates in the 2.4GHz frequency and provides a data rate up to 11 Mbps. Interestingly, 802.11a products hit the market before 802.11a, which was approved at the same time but didn’t hit the market until later.
Pending Wi-Fi standards
802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6)
Known as High Efficiency WLAN, 802.11ax aims to improve the performance in WLAN deployments in dense scenarios, such as sports stadiums and airports, while still operating in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum. The group is targeting at least a 4X improvement in throughput compared to 802.11n and 802.11ac., through more-efficient spectrum utilisation. Approval is estimated to be in July 2019.
Also known as Next Generation 60GHz, the goal of this standard is to support a maximum throughput of at least 20Gbps within the 60GHz frequency (802.11ad currently achieves up to 7Gbps), as well as increase the range and reliability. The standard is expected to be approved between September and November 2019.
Called Next Generation Positioning (NGP), a study group was formed in January 2015 to address the needs of a “Station to identify its absolute and relative position to another station or stations it’s either associated or un-associated with.” The goals of the group would be to define modifications to the MAC and PHY layers that enable “determination of absolute and relative position with better accuracy with respect to the Fine Timing Measurement (MTM) protocol executing on the same PHY-type, while reducing existing wireless medium use and power consumption, and is scalable to dense deployments.” The current estimate on approval of this standard is March 2021.
Otherwise known as “Wake-Up Radio” (WUR), a new technology aimed at extending the battery life of devices and sensors within an Internet of Things network. The goal of the WUR is to “greatly reduce the need for frequent recharging and replacement of batteries while still maintaining optimum device performance.” This is currently expected to be approved in July 2020.
WI-Fi Take Away:
Expect to see the first fully certifiedWi-Fi 6 commercial kit hit store shelves later this year. Theoretical peak data speeds of up to 10Gbps are being promised over the combined 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio spectrum bands, alongside better management of spectrum in congested environments. Until then continue to deploy 802.11ac or Wi-Fi 5 equipment.
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) – Expected the standard to be published in early 2019, this version will improve on the coordination of data transmitting between the router and several devices wirelessly connected to it. It’s meant to accommodate the growing use of internet-connected devices (AI assistants, cameras, lights, speakers, thermostats, etc.). The main way it increases speed is by fully combining the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum bands. Previously, 802.11ac and 802.11n (or Wi-Fi 4) were forced to work on the two bands separately, but the new standard will utilise them simultaneously. MU-MIMO technology will also be enabled for uplink data, in addition to the downlink data it already supports.
Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) – Published in December 2013, this is the version that’s found in the latest, top-of-the-line routers and devices you can buy today. It was designed to meet the growing need for moving large amounts of data throughout a Wi-Fi network, such as for cloud storage services and streaming high-resolution video. Its top speed is 3.4 Gbps.
Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) – Published in October 2009, this version tops 600 Mbps and nearly doubles the broadcast range of its predecessors. It uses multiple antennas to hit such high speeds.