A lot of my customers are confused about the networking standards, especially the wireless ones. This post will explain in simplified detail about what the networking standards mean.

First, you must know the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is one of the many organizations that sets and defines standards. A lot of people call it “the I triple-E”. Even though the standards are set by the non-profit IEEE it does not mean the standards are patent free. Corporations are members of the IEEE and they give input into the standards. Businesses know it is in their financial interests to have standards and so they work together.

There are various committees of the IEEE. The 802 committee, which was coincidentally formed on February 1980, is responsible for all networking standards. Each committee is sub-divided into different working groups numbered in the order of creation. Some working groups were disbanded, some inactive (which means no new development but future development may occur), some are reserved for possible development, and some are still active. Each working group can define various standards which are denoted by either a letter or number. Examples: 802.15.1 is the Bluetooth standard and 802.11b is one of the many wireless networking standards.

The third working group, IEEE 802.3, is responsible for the Ethernet standard. This standard is the most common wired networking standard. The networking wire that looks like a big phone cable but with 8 wires is often called an Ethernet cable. But that is not entirely true. Simply put, Ethernet really defines how data is sent to other devices. The Etherenet standard started out using coaxial cable like your cable TV uses, then started to use the 8 wires, then fiber optic wires. Thanks to the Ethernet standard, you just plug your networking wire in and equipment knows what to do.

The eleventh working group, IEEE 802.11, is responsible for wireless standards. The wireless standards meant for general consumer use are managed by the Wi-Fi Alliance. (Wi-Fi does not stand for anything, it is just a catchy name.) The purpose of the Wi-Fi alliance is to ensure the wireless networking equipment satisfies the IEEE’s standards. Companies pay a fee for the Wi-Fi Alliance to thoroughly test the equipment and if it passes then the device can be sold with the Wi-Fi logo on it. The IEEE sets the standards; the Wi-Fi Alliance enforces the standards.

There are many standards defined under IEEE 802.11; some are not meant for general consumer use and some are just standards that define improvements to the entire system. Example: IEEE 802.11p is for vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

Of the 802.11 standards these are the ones currently used: 802.11a was the second Wi-Fi standard and was faster than the original just plain 802.11 standard, but it operates in the 5 GHz frequency. More on the frequency later. The 802.11b standard is just the original plain 802.11 standard improved. It operates in the 2.4 GHz frequency and it was the first successful Wi-Fi standard although it was slower than 802.11a. All Wi-Fi devices still conform to this standard so something released in 2000 can still communicate with a device today. 802.11g is a faster version of 802.11b. 802.11n is faster than 802.11g and has greater range. It also operates at both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency. 802.11ac is a faster version of 802.11n and with greater range, but it only operates in the 5 GHz frequency.

Now about those frequencies. Because of the laws of physics, the lower the frequency the better the signal penetrates walls but the less traffic it can carry. And vice versa. This is, of course, an oversimplification to help you understand. It is because of the laws of physics you can be in the back of Wal-Mart and have no cell phone signal but up front you have a great signal. But for Wi-Fi just remember that the 5 GHz frequency can support more devices and greater speeds than the 2.4 GHz frequency but it has shorter range and doesn’t penetrate walls as well. The general rule of thumb is to take the open air range of a wireless device and subtract 10 feet per wall the signal must go through. Older houses are even worse for signal degradation. So if the router is rated for 100 feet of open air and your house is 50 feet long, don’t expect the wireless signal to go through 5 walls.

One last thing to remember about wireless networking is that the speed for everybody connected is only as fast as the slowest person connected at that frequency.