A Cursory Guide to the WiFi

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (or IEEE) is a non-profit organization, which develops and maintains the 802.11 standard or what is commonly known nowadays, as WiFi. Naturally, it also develops and maintains a plethora of other well-known technologies, to include Ethernet (or 802.3); a standard, which still remains a backbone to all networking infrastructures. The WiFi family have enjoyed a huge success with wide adoption by home and business consumers alike.

The WiFi Family: 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g

The WiFi Family

The name WiFi, is an umbrella heading for the range of 802.11 standards and, as such, WiFi may include 802.11, 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. The newer WiFi standard 802.11n will undoubtedly be grouped under the same heading. From an historical perspective, the first family member to stand out in the crowd was 802.11, which was one of the first standards to unleash the notion of mobility and freedom.

This initial standard offered consumers a modest data rate of up to 1Mb/s, but primarily it was the IEEE’s first daring venture to remove the Ethernet cable. Indeed, consumers would now begin to witness the early signs of Wireless Local Area Network (WLANs) – a wireless extension to the more traditional and Ethernet-cabled Local Area Network (or LAN).

New Standards Assure WiFi’s Continued Success

802.11 did enjoy some moderate success, but it wasn’t until the introduction of 802.11b that the technology became prevalent. 802.11b offered backward compatibility with 802.11, but now the technology supported improved data rates with 1Mb/s, 2Mb/s, 5.5Mb/s and 11Mb/s. A WiFi-enabled access point would support a data rate based on environmental factors. In other words, an access point would degrade gracefully until a rate could be supported in the environment in which it was operating.

The technology operates in the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) unlicensed frequency 2.4GHz, which is common to a range of wireless technologies, to include Bluetooth wireless and ZigBee. In June 2003, the IEEE released the next generation of the standard, namely 802.11g, which is also backward compatible with 802.11b. The new standard supported up to 54Mb/s, which is obviously a significant improvement on its predecessor.

802.11g also uses the ISM 2.4GHz band, but 802.11a, which utilizes the 5GHz band was never really adopted by consumers in the masses. However, the IEEE is still in the process of ratifying or signing off the standard for WiFi’s next generation, namely 802.11n. It is rumored that 802.11n will support data rates of up to 300Mb/s, which will support more demanding applications, such as streaming audio and video.

What's with WiFi's

What’s with WiFi’s 802.11 Draft N?

Again, 802.11n offers backward compatibility with 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g in a mixed mode environment. In a Greenfield environment 802.11n will interoperate with .11n-only products thus supporting the new improved data rate of 300Mb/s. However, although everything seems to be in its place, the IEEE have been a little zealous and have released 802.11n as a draft standard – even offering certification of draft N-enabled products to manufacturers!

Certification refers to a process whereby a product is rubber stamped by an authority (in this instance the WiFi Alliance) to assure consumers that the product complies with strict guidelines and offers basic interoperation. Most technologists would grimace at such concessions and to engage in a software development activity would certainly be frowned upon. But how did the IEEE and the WiFi Alliance convince manufacturers and developers?

Watch out for the second part of this story, which looks at how consumers are to blame for a premature release of a standard and the pitfalls of developing software from a draft or incomplete specification.