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Grow Your Business Technology

802.11ax and The Legacy of Wi-Fi Standards

Wi-Fi Standard
Credit: Denys Prykhodov

A new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, which has been in development, is set to be finalized early next year. Soon after this happens, legions of new routers, laptops, smartphones and other gadgets with 802.11ax Wi-Fi chips in them will hit the market. In fact, some companies even showed off their upcoming new models at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

So will your company want to scramble to be an early adopter of those new devices? The answer is a qualified "maybe." The new standard is designed to connect lots of devices efficiently, which is great for companies embracing mobile devices.

Wi-Fi technology is governed by a set of technical standards developed by chip and device makers, and published by the IEEE Standards Association. They go by the designation "802.11" followed by one or two letters.

The 802.11 standards establish how fast the data transmission speed is between the router and devices wirelessly connected to it. They also help ensure that devices stay connected to the router. And when multiple devices are connected to the router, they coordinate the distribution of data between the router and devices. Each succeeding version of 802.11 has brought improvements to these areas.

As the next generation of 802.11 approaches, here's a look-back at the evolution of this Wi-Fi technology spanning nearly 21 years. The following are not all the versions of 802.11 – just the ones that have been most common in the devices that you buy for business or personal use.

802.11 – Published in June 1997, the first version has a top data transmission speed of 2Mbps.

802.11a and 802.11b – Both of these were published in September 1999. The latter has a top speed of 11Mbps, while its "a" counterpart is 54Mbps. The tradeoff is that 802.11a has a slightly smaller broadcasting range, and its signals cannot penetrate as far, because walls and other solid barriers can more easily block it. It was most used in an open office environment. 802.11b devices suffered from interference by Bluetooth devices, cordless phones and microwave ovens.

802.11g – Published in June 2003, this version brings together the speeds of 802.11a and the broadcasting range and reliability of 802.11b. It's backwards compatible with 802.11b, meaning that devices with 802.11b chips can connect to a router with an 802.11g chip. However, the presence of a connected 802.11b device significantly reduces the overall speed of the 802.11g network.

802.11n Published in October 2009, this version tops 600Mbps and also nearly doubles the broadcast range of its predecessors. It uses multiple antennas to hit such high speeds.

802.11ac – Published in December 2013, this is the version that's found in the latest, top-of-the-line routers and devices you can buy today. It was designed to meet the growing need for moving large amounts of data throughout a Wi-Fi network, such as for cloud storage services and streaming high-resolution video. Its top speed is 3.4Gbps.

802.11ax Expected to be published in early 2019, this version will improve on the coordination of data transmitting between the router and several devices wirelessly connected to it. It's meant to accommodate for the growing use of Internet-connected devices (AI assistants, cameras, lights, speakers, thermostats, etc.). The top data transmission speed is still being determined but is predicted to be up to 10.5Gbps.

Both ASUS and D-Link have announced they will release, sometime this year, routers that have 802.11ax chips. But practically speaking, upgrading to a router with this technology in 2018 may be too early.

Laptops, smartphones, and other devices with 802.11ax chips in them will likely not be available before 2019. Both the router and devices connected to it will need 802.11ax chips in them to use the new features of this standard.

Howard Wen

Howard Wen reports on the internet and tech industries. He covers products and trends for enterprise and the general audience. He has contributed to several publications including Make Magazine, Popular Science and Wired.