Common WiFi Standards
- All WiFi standards begin with “802.11”, the original standard created in 1997. 802.11 supported a maximum bandwidth of 2 Mbps (Megabits per second), too slow for most applications.
- 802.11b expanded the original 802.11 standard in 1999, operating at a frequency of 2.4 GHz and supporting bandwidth of up to 11 Mbps
- 802.11a was created around the same time as 802.11b and supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps and operates around 5 GHz, but is rarely found in consumer products.
- 802.11g emerged in 2002 and 2003 and supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps and operates at the 2.4 GHz frequency.
- 802.11n was designed to improve on 802.11g and utilizes multiple wireless signals and antennas (called MIMO technology). It was ratified in 2009 and provides up to 300 Mbps of network bandwidth. It is backward compatible with 802.11/b/g
- 802.11ac is the newest generation of WiFi standards, supporting simultaneous connections on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies and bandwidth up to 1300 Mbps on 5 GHz and 450 Mbps on 2.4 GHz. 802.11ac offers backward compatibility to 802.11b/g/n.
It Takes Two to Tango
- Establishing a wireless connection requires two devices: the wireless access point and the wireless adapter. Your wireless access point might be in your modem or it might be in a separate box attached to your modem. The wireless adapter is usually built into your computer or smart device.
- To achieve 802.11ac throughput, both the access point and the adapter must support it. For instance, if you have a modern wireless adapter supporting 802.11ac, but your laptop has an 802.11n adapter, then you will operate under the 802.11n standard.
- In setting up the wireless access point, there are several security choices available. From least secure to most secure, the list typically includes Open (no password), WEP 64, WEP 128, WPA-PSK (TKIP), WPA-PSK (AES), WPAWPA2-PSK (TKIP/AES), WPA2-PSK (AES). WPA2-PSK (AES) being the most secure is the best choice, but some older wireless devices may not support that encryption mode. In that case, the mixed mode of WPAWPA2-PSK (TKIP/AES) is the next best choice. Also be aware that to get the fastest wireless throughput, you need to pick the AES encryption. Also choose a generic wireless network name and a strong password.
- If you are using public wifi, be very careful. It is incredibly easy with the right knowledge and equipment to capture your wireless traffic. When on a public wifi network, never enter passwords and restrict yourself to generic searches.
Establishing a Connection
- To establish a wireless connection, you have to know the name of the wireless network (also called a ssid) and the password if one is present (also called the wireless key). Once you have successfully connected a wireless adapter (device) to the wireless access point, the wireless adapter will remember the id and password thereafter and automatically connect if it detects a strong enough signal.
- If you change the name of your wireless network or the password or the encryption mode, all wireless devices will need to connect to the wireless access point again.
- Wireless being an over-the-air technology is subject to interference, distance, and the materials the signal has to pass through.
- In general, the 5 GHz network being much faster is the preferred choice of network assuming your wireless adapter supports it, but 5 GHz does not achieve the same distance as 2.4 GHz. So the rule of thumb is if your wireless device is physically close to a 5 GHz access point, then use 5 GHz, otherwise defer to the 2.4 GHz network.
I know I’ve probably provided too much information, so here is the bottom line. If you have newer devices, choose a wireless access point that provides 802.11ac, otherwise go at least with 802.11n. If you are physically close to the wireless access point and 5GHz is supported on both your access point and your devices, choose that one, otherwise go with the 2.4GHz network. Use AES for your network encryption if you can, otherwise pick the TKIP/AES combination. And always, always, always, set up a generic wireless network name and a strong password. And finally, when using a public wifi network, do not enter any passwords.
One final note: next generation wireless products are beginning to hit the market. They implement what is known as a “mesh network”. I will discuss this in next month’s blog.