Wireless Protocols: from 802.11 to 802.11g

Wireless Alphabet Soup: What’s the Difference Between the Protocols?

At this point, you might have read a few feature lists for wireless cards, and you’re about to ask a very common question: what’s the difference anyway? Well, answering that question requires a brief rundown of the history of wireless networking so far.

The Beginning: 802.11.

The first wireless networking standard was simply called 802.11, without a letter after its name, and was released in 1997. It is now sometimes called ‘legacy 802.11′ — no-one uses the original 802.11 standard any more.

The 802.11 standard was never really popular to begin with, in fact, mainly because it offered wireless equipment manufacturers so many different choices on which parts of the standard to implement. This left users in a situation where they were more-or-less stuck with one set of wireless devices, and interoperability was hard to come by.

A Breakout Hit: 802.11b.

With the revision of the standard in 1999, 802.11 became 802.11b, and that’s when things really started to take off. 802.11b streamlined the standards to provide greater interoperability, without making too many changes — existing wireless devices were easily upgraded to the new standard, which meant that 802.11b wireless appeared on the market quickly.

Many advantages came with the upgrade to 802.11b. It was over ten times faster than 802.11 (11Mbps instead of 1Mbps), and yet cheaper. People loved 802.11b, and it was around this time that wireless networking technology started to take off in a big way.

Oops: 802.11a.

As a counterpoint to the 802.11b success story, consider 802.11a. The a and b standards were originally intended to present a choice to the consumer, with a offering higher speeds than b in exchange for reduced range. As it turned out, though, 802.11a was an utter failure.

Why? Well, 802.11a’s downsides were simply too great to bear. Sure, it gave speeds of 54Mbps — almost five times faster than 802.11b — but it would only work if you had a clear line of sight between the two wireless devices. If there’s nothing between the devices then, well, why not just use a wire?

As a final nail in the coffin, 802.11a products didn’t start to appear on the market until 2001. By then, people were used to 802.11b, and no-one was interested in getting a speed increase in exchange for such a dramatic range decrease.

Speed With No Downsides: 802.11g.

In 2003, with the lessons of the 802.11a failure learned, a new standard was created — 802.11g. The aim of this standard was to combine the best of both worlds, giving the speed of 802.11a with the range of 802.11b.

Well, it was some time in the making, but they managed it. 802.11g devices run at 54Mbps, but are otherwise the same as 802.11b ones. Even better, 802.11g devices are backwards compatible with 802.11b ones, meaning that you can use them together in your network.

What to Choose.

So you know the advantages and disadvantages of everything, but what should you choose if you’re buying a wireless device today?

Well, first of all, avoid legacy 802.11 (if you somehow find it) or 802.11a. They will not work with your other wireless equipment, and are generally quite useless.

That leaves you with the choice of 802.11b or 802.11g. Considering that most broadband connections run well below the speed of 802.11b (11Mbps), which you choose probably won’t make any difference to your external Internet access. The area where it matters is when you transfer things around within your network — if you’re sending a file from your laptop computer to your desktop one, for example, it will happen five times faster with g than it would with b.

There is another consideration in your decision, however, and that’s price: g devices are still quite a lot more expensive than b ones. If you’re mainly planning to use your wireless network to connect to the Internet then b will do everything you need, but that hasn’t stopped lots of people upgrading to g who didn’t really need to. This means that the market is flooded with cheap 802.11b wireless equipment that still works perfectly!

If you want to know the secret of wireless networking on a budget, then that’s it: get 802.11b equipment for a few dollars, then sit back and watch your network work just as well as the ones that cost hundreds.

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