The 802.11 Standard and Its Variations

Generally, the core 802.11 standard is intended to specify a way for computers to network using the 2.4GHz and 5GHz free spectrums I just explained. (When computers network, it is said that they are forming a local area network, or LAN. When computers network wirelessly, it is called a Wireless LAN, or WLAN.)

The 802.11b Standard

When you say "Wi-Fi" today, you probably mean 802.11b, which is a subset of the general 802.11 standard. Most Wi-Fi devices that are currently in operation are using 802.11b. However, technology moves quickly, and 802.11g is gaining momentum fast.

The full 802.11b specification document is more than 500 pages long, but here are the key things to know about 802.11b:

  • The 802.11b standard uses the 2.4GHz spectrum.

  • The 802.11b standard uses a technology called Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS) to minimize interference with other devices transmitting on the 2.4GHz spectrum.

  • The 802.11b standard has a theoretical throughput speed of 11 megabytes per second (Mbps).

The 11Mbps speed compares favorably with the 10Mbps throughput of a conventional 10BASE-T wired Ethernet network, which may be what you are used to using at work. It is certainly faster than even the fastest broadband Internet connections.


Another factor that slows down 802.11b Wi-Fi is that transmissions are in duplex mode, which means that communication consists of a query and a response (rather than simultaneous communication). This slows down speeds noticeably.

However, for a variety of reasons Wi-Fi connections rarely achieve anything like its theoretical maximum (encryption slows 802.11b down, for one thing). Weak connectivity also slows Wi-Fi down. Even so, Wi-Fi connections should be fine for everyday uses such as file sharing or sharing an Internet connection. There may be some extremely demanding applications that Wi-Fi speeds are not good enough for, but I am hard put to think of any.

The most important thing you should take away regarding the speed of 802.11b Wi-Fi is that for most users 11Mbps is good enough. The 802.11b Wi-Fi connection is rarely slower than other parts of the system it is in, such as the network it is connected to, or access to the Internet.

I'll be telling you a little more about transmission speeds of 802.11b related to other wireless standards later in this chapter.

The 802.11a and 802.11g Standards

The 802.11a and 802.11g standards are different variants of 802.11 that can be thought of as 802.11b's smarter, younger brothers. The 802.11a standard uses the 5GHz band for transmission, which minimizes the possibility of interference with the plethora of 2.4GHz devices out there (think microwaves, garage door openers, and so on) and promises a theoretic throughput of 24Mbps.

Still newer than 802.11a, 802.11g operates on the 2.4GHz spectrum and boasts throughput as fast as 54Mbps.

In other words, both 802.11a and 802.11g show the promise of being considerably faster than 802.11b.

The 802.11a standard poses some compatibility issues with 802.11b. But at least one vendor, Atheros Communications, makes 802.11a equipment that is backward- compatible with 802.11b. (Atheros also makes a "tri-mode" chipset that uses 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g.) The chief advantage of 802.11a is that it will run into less interruption from other devices because it does not use the crowded 2.4GHz band.

Moving to 802.11a has some pluses and minuses, but moving to 802.11g is a no-brainer?because 802.11g systems are backward-compatible with 802.11b, and faster. This backward compatibility of 802.11g devices is a requirement for Wi-Fi certification.

Neither 802.11a nor 802.11g are starting to become mainstream, with prices a bit higher than for 802.11b. In fact, the 802.11g standard is replacing 802.11b as the standard for new equipment (it is preferred to 802.11a because of its backward compatibility). Pretty soon, 802.11g will be the de facto Wi-Fi standard that is at the "sweet" price point, and other, faster Wi-Fi standards?such as the proposed 802.11n?will be the new contender knocking at the door.

You'll find more information about evaluating whether 802.11a or 802.11g Wi-Fi hardware is right for you in Chapter 8, "Adding Wi-Fi to a Mobile Computer," and Chapter 13, "Buying a Wi-Fi Access Point or Router."

The 802.11i Standard

The IEEE is in the process of developing a new security standard for 802.11 that is named 802.11i. The Wi-Fi Alliance has released a subset of the 802.11i standard that the Alliance has developed called "Wi-Fi Protected Access."

Products that successfully complete the Wi-Fi Alliance testing required for meeting its version of the 802.11i standard will be called "Wi-Fi Protected Access" certified.

Wi-Fi Protected Access provides a stronger level of encryption and authentication than is built into the current Wi-Fi standards. This means that Wi-Fi networks will be better protected from unauthorized access and other security problems. Wi-Fi Protected Access is intended to replace WEP encryption built into current Wi-Fi.

The new standard is also intended to be "software implementable." This means that current Wi-Fi products should be upgradeable to Wi-Fi Protected Access by running a software patch?new hardware will not be required.

The Wi-Fi Protected Access standard is currently available, and a number of manufacturers have announced that their products will support it. However, most products on the market do not support this standard yet. For more about Wi-Fi and security, please see Part V, "Securing Your Wi-Fi Computer and Network."