Choosing the Right Wi-Fi Standard
Three Wi-Fi standards are commonly used today: 802.11g, 802.11n and 802.11ac. Two other standards, 802.11a and 802.11b, are still occasionally encountered, but they are largely being phased out. An upcoming standard, 802.11ax, is expected to deliver even higher performance than what is available today, but it is yet being widely deployed.
There are, of course, different pros and cons specific to each standard that should be considered when setting up a network.
The 802.11ax standard is an upcoming upgrade to 802.11ac. While the standard itself is not yet completed (the IEEE working group in charge of it is expected to publish the final specifications in 2019), its development is advanced enough that compatible access points have been available on the market since 2018. Its high performance, with speeds of up to 11 Gbps, is a significant improvement over current Wi-Fi standards, but compatible access points are expected to be even more expensive, and they are risky to deploy on a wide scale, since the standard has not yet been completed.
- Pros: Fast, backwards-compatible with 802.11ac
- Cons: Specifications are not yet complete, few compatible devices, high cost
The 802.11ac standard is the most recent among the well-established standards. Its performance is on-par with wired networks (up to 1 Gbps), but unless you need that kind of performance, the investment may be hard to justify. 802.11ac works in the 5 Ghz region, rather than 2.4 Ghz like its predecessor – a band which enables higher speed and may be less crowded in some environments.
- Pros: High speed, good range.
- Cons: Expensive, may be under-utilized in many environments
802.11n was adopted in 2009 as an improvement to an older standard, 802.11g. Its speed and range (up to 300 MBits/sec and 300 feet, respectively) are sufficient for most office use scenarios, and it is backwards compatible with 802.11g
- Pros: Fastest speed, longest range, resistant to interference, backwards compatible
- Cons: Possible interference with nearby 802.11b/g networks
The 802.11g standard was released in 2002, and provided a major upgrade to previous standards by combining the best features of the standards which preceded it. It is backwards compatible with the 802.11b standard, and you can expect it to be supported by virtually any device on the market.
- Pros: Quick (54 MBits/sec), good range, backwards compatible, less expensive than 802.11a
- Cons: Susceptible to interference
The 802.11b standard is one of the oldest Wi-Fi standards. While rarely used anymore, there are still plenty of legacy devices that support it. It used to be very popular for home use and small offices. It is cheap but slow, with a maximum bandwidth of only 11 MBits/sec. It also uses an unregulated frequency, making it susceptible to interference from other devices.
- Pros: Least expensive, good range
- Cons: Slowest of all standards, susceptible to interference
The 802.11a standard was created at the same time as 802.11b, but did not gain popularity until slightly later, and the two standards are not compatible. 802.11a is also rarely used anymore, except in legacy devices. It used to be very popular for enterprise applications, but was a less common choice for home and small business use, due to its higher cost. However, it was was faster than 802.11b, with a bandwidth of up to 54 MBits/sec.
- Pros: Quick, not easily susceptible to interference
- Cons: Most expensive of all standards, short range
Choosing the right blend of affordability, speed and range is important when setting up a network for office use.
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