When shopping for a new device, whether it be a new phone, tablet, or computer, you will probably have come across an IEEE classification that tells you which types of Wi-Fi networks the device will be compatible with. The IEEE classification is usually written as 802.11 followed by a lower-case number, and it’s that lower=case number that we’ll be looking at in this article.
Most people use the term Wi-Fi in broad terms to mean any wireless network, but in reality, Wi-Fi is actually a trademarked term that’s owned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which is a group that’s dedicated to ensuring that Wi-Fi products adhere to the specifications set out in the IEEE 802.11 wireless standards guide. If that all seems a bit confusing, then don’t worry; we will explain it all in simple terms below.
But, before we get into what 802.11 means and why the letters following 802.11 are so important, we first need to understand the different types of Wi-Fi, so let’s look at that now and see what conclusions we can make about what each of the main Wi-Fi designations is, what makes them different from each other, and which ones are best for both modern and legacy devices.
What is Wi-Fi 6? Wi-Fi 5? Wi-Fi 4?
The Wi-Fi Alliance is aware of how confusing its naming conventions are for everyday people, and so they have recently rebranded their latest technologies under the following new classifications: 802.11ax is now Wi-Fi 6. 802.11ac has become Wi-Fi 5, and 802.11n is now Wi-Fi 4.
The idea was to make it easier for normal, non-technical people to match endpoints and routers. That said, the Alliance has not formally changed the designations of the many other 802.11 classifications, which makes finding new information on these Wi-Fi designations using the new naming convention difficult.
To demystify all of this alphabet soup, let’s go over each type of 802.11 Wi-Fi designation so that you can understand the differences and ensure that your new device will be compatible with your router and home Wi-Fi network.
802.11b/g/n: The baseline Wi-Fi standard
The normal everyday Wi-Fi that we all know and love is normally designated as 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n. 802.11a was released in 1997, and so if you think all the way back to your very first router, chances are you had an 802.11a device. A few years later, in 1999, 802.11b was released, which had increased frequency and data rates compared to its predecessor. Then, in June 2003, 802.11g was released, and for the first time, home networks were able to achieve download speeds in excess of 50 Mbps, 54 to be exact. So we can see that there is a correlation between the 802.11 designations and the speed of the internet; let’s keep this in mind as we move forward.
802.11ac: Approaching gigabit speeds
Fast forward to 2013 when 802.11ac AKA Wi-Fi 5 was released. For the first time, home routers we able to achieve file transfer rates approaching gigabit speeds, and this is largely what facilitated the advent of modern streaming platforms such as Netflix, which would not have been possible or would have been unbearably slow if it weren’t for the improved technology of 802.11ac.
It’s no coincidence that for the first time, we see two letters following the 802.11 designation here. Thanks to Wireless-N MiMo technology, routers became able to support “dual-band functionality,” allowing them to support multiple frequencies such as 2.4GHz and 5GHz. That is to say, that for the first time, home routers were able to offer users a choice of different internal Wi-Fi networks, which has been instrumental for businesses worldwide.
So, we can see that, like with other consumer technology, as time is progressing, the Wi-Fi technology in home routers is improving and allowing for greater speeds and different features such as Wireless-N MiMo, and dual-band.
Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E: The new gold standard
In 2019 another Wi-Fi standard was released, which is Wi-fi 802.11ax, otherwise known as Wi-Fi 6, or High-Efficiency WLAN. The difference between the new Wi-Fi 6 and all of the 802.11 designations that came before it is indeed substantial. The new technology supports blazing fast speeds, supports many more devices, dramatically reduces latency, improves security, and greatly increases bandwidth. It is this technology that will make the future internet, known as the metaverse, possible.
Late in 2020, a new and improved version of Wi-Fi 6, known as Wi-Fi 6E or Wi-Fi 6 extended, was released, which allows devices to take advantage of the 6GHz frequency for the first time. Therefore, new Wi-Fi 6E compatible devices will be able to use the internet via 2.4GHz, 5 GHz, and 6GHz frequencies, which will significantly improve speeds by decreasing the amount of frequency congestion, which is common with modern devices that only support 2.4GHz and 5GHz.
The 802.11 Wi-Fi standards we’ve looked at so far are the most common, but there are certainly several others to be aware of, so let’s go over some of the lesser-known standards now.
This designation was created to allow Multiple Gigabit Wireless System (MGWS) operations at the standard 60 GHz frequency. In other words, the technology uses a higher frequency which is less susceptible to interference and can therefore transfer much more data at considerably higher speeds.
The 802.11ay was originally slated to be released in 2017 but was pushed back until 2021. This isn’t a new standard but rather an improved version of the 802.11ad standard that supports a higher maximum bandwidth of 8.64GHz. As such, rapid file transfers that formerly relied on wired ethernet connections are now possible thanks to the 802.11ay technology.
Otherwise known as Wi-Fi HaLow, the 802.11ah Wi-Fi standard was released in 2017. This designation used 900MHz license-exempt frequency bands which allow for home networks to benefit from extended ranges. Another benefit of HaLow is that it uses considerably less power, making it one of the most energy-efficient Wi-Fi standards to date.
So, in conclusion, we’ve seen that Wi-Fi standards can be a little bit confusing but that this is largely due to their unfortunate naming conventions. In simple terms, the 802.11 standard designation has changed over time as router and network capabilities have improved. It helps to think of 802.11a as being the original iPhone and the latest 802.11ax AKA Wi-Fi 6E as being the iPhone 13 pro.
Different routers support different frequencies and as such support different Wi-Fi designations, with the newest models supporting the newest standards and, as such, allowing users to enjoy greater speeds, more security, much more bandwidth, and considerably less ping or latency.
Frequently Asked Questions
Chances are that you still have some questions about all of this, so let’s look at some of the most practical questions that you’re likely to have concerning Wi-Fi standards.
Which Wi-Fi Standard Has the Furthest Range?
802.11n still has the longest range, with an unimpeded range that is nearly double that of the next best thing, which is 802.11g. That said, the longest range doesn’t mean that it’s the fastest possible Wi-Fi, as it definitely is not, but if you need to cover the most distance with your Wi-Fi signal, then go with an 802.11n router.
Does Wi-Fi 6 Penetrate Walls Better?
Wi-Fi 6 in and of itself is not the best for penetrating solid objects such as walls; however, what it does do is significantly increase the speeds that are attainable by 2.4GHz networks, which are famous for not being able to penetrate walls. So, in essence, if you are running a 2.4GHz network and you have Wi-Fi 6, you will see a noticeable performance in your upload and download speeds, even if there are walls in between you and your router. Again, this is assuming that you have a router the supports both 2.4GHz and Wi-Fi 6.
Is Wi-Fi 6 Backward Compatible?
Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible with Wi-Fi 5 devices, but only certain routers, such as the ASUS AX, will be able to communicate with legacy devices using Wi-Fi 6. To be sure, other routers will be released in time that are able to connect with older devices as the new standard is rolled out and adopted across the industry, but for the time being, you can only count on Wi-Fi 5 backward compatibility.