The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) has a committee which promotes standards for computer networks called IEEE 802. Of this group, there are 12 sub-groups which break computer networks into different areas. One of these is the 802.11 group which manages the standards for the wireless network and Wi-Fi certifications.
As wireless technology changes and improves, the 802.11 group works to develop the standards which allow our Wi-Fi devices to be faster and more reliable. This can be due to more frequencies being allowed to be used for Wi-Fi, better algorithms for transferring data, more concurrent data streams, or other technologies that make our Wi-Fi experience better. The standardizations they develop are published in what is known as the 802.11 standard.
As improvements are made to the standard, they are published as amendments. The amendments are signified by letters following the 802.11 standard such as 802.11a and 802.11b. The 802.11a and 802.11b addendums were ratified and delivered in the early 2000’s. Consumers found them to be a better Wi-Fi experience and vendors were quick to deliver new hardware which incorporated the new technologies supported by the new amendments. Over the last 10 years, we have seen 802.11g 802.11n, 802.11ac and 802.11ax introduced (the latter two because we ran out of single letters!). It is important to note not all amendments result in new consumer hardware (802.11c, d, e, etc.); however previous amendments are often incorporated into the latest ones.
The Wi-Fi Alliance group understood the complications the 802.11 notation was putting on consumers and with 802.11ax standard, they delivered a new naming standard by calling it Wi-Fi 6. They also took the step to retroactively name previous standards. They labeled 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5, 802.11n Wi-Fi 4, and so on. Letters are still in play as Wi-Fi 6 has been recently superseded by Wi-Fi 6e. The 802.11 naming remains and will continue to be used, but the customer will be shown the new naming standard instead.
Now when consumers walk into a store, they can pick the newer Wi-Fi device by choosing newer Wi-Fi naming standard rather than relying on an understanding of industry jargon. Unfortunately, your wireless speed is dependent on more than just the Wi-Fi standard. MIMO technologies introduced with 802.11n allow multiple connections to be combined and effectively double your speed. Faster processors allow faster data transfer. Some routers allow automatic prioritization of services such as Voice over Internet or TV Over Internet. Mesh enabled routers allow wider coverage and seamless transitioning between multiple Wi-Fi access points. Dual channel routers allow faster access on the 5GHz spectrum at a cost of usable distance.
Generally speaking, consumers should look at the following criteria when purchasing a Wi-Fi Router:
Wi-Fi Standard. Newer is typically better.
Wi-Fi Speed. This is usually based on MIMO Capabilities and Wi-Fi Standard and is typically printed on the box.
Mesh Capabilities. For larger homes this can be extremely important. It is important to note that Mesh Wi-Fi Systems require multiple Wi-Fi access points or routers throughout the home.
It is also important to keep in mind a faster Wi-Fi router will not necessarily make your internet speed faster. The speed you get from your ISP will not increase based on the speed of your Wi-Fi device. If you are getting 5 Mbps from your ISP, your 500 Mbps Wi-Fi will still be limited to 5 Mbps while accessing the internet.
One thing you can be certain of with technology is what you buy today will quickly be outdated tomorrow. The Wi-Fi alliance is quickly working to ratify the Wi-Fi 7 standard.
Christopher Carlson, MA, MBA is a Grand Rapids native. He leads the critical database team for Optum, a part of UnitedHealth Group. He has an undergraduate degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato as well as graduate degrees from St. John’s University and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. He resides in Grand Rapids with his beautiful wife and wonderful daughter.