July 19, 2024

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The Most Common Wi-Fi Standards and Types, Explained

8 min read

Key Takeaways

  • Wi-Fi standards are constantly changing and evolving, with updates bringing faster internet speeds, better connections, and more simultaneous connections.
  • The most commonly used Wi-Fi standard at present is 802.11ac, while the next generation standard, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), is being rolled out.
  • Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6 that allows for broadcasting over a new 6GHz band, increasing available network capacity and reducing interference. Wi-Fi 7 and Wi-Fi 8 are also on the horizon, with even faster speeds and improved features.


Wi-Fi is a catch-all term. In a sense, it is very precise. It explains a specific method you can use to connect to the internet.

There are many different types of Wi-Fi standards. Your router, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and smart home devices use different wireless standards to connect to the internet. Wireless standards change every few years, too. Updates bring faster internet, better connections, more simultaneous connections, and so on—but the sheer number of wireless standards and specifications is confusing, to say the least.


What Are Wi-Fi Standards?

Wireless standards are a set of services and protocols that dictate how your Wi-Fi network (and other data transmission networks) acts.

The most common wireless standards you will encounter are the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN (WLAN) & Mesh. The IEEE updates the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard every few years. At the time of writing, the most commonly used Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac, while the next generation Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax (also known as Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E—but more on this in a moment!), is rolling out, albeit slower than most experts thought.

Now, the generation after 802.11ax is on the horizon, with IEEE 802.11be mooted for launch around 2024/2025 (using the name Wi-Fi 7). Before you ask, yes, Wi-Fi 8 is under development, currently using the name IEEE 802.11bn, but it’s not expected to launch until at least 2028, and it’ll likely be a few years after that, given how Wi-Fi launches and uptake tend to filter out slowly.

A Brief History of Wireless Standards

IEEE Standard

Wi-Fi Alliance Name

Year Released

Frequency

Maximum Data Rate

802.11a

Wi-Fi 1

1999

5GHz

54Mbps

802.11b

Wi-Fi 2

1999

2.4GHz

11Mbps

802.11g

Wi-Fi 3

2003

2.4GHz

54Mbps

802.11n

Wi-Fi 4

2009

2.4GHz & 5GHz

600Mbps

802.11ac

Wi-Fi 5

2014

2.4GHz & 5GHz

1.3Gbps

802.11ax

Wi-Fi 6

2019

2.4GHz & 5GHz

10-12Gbps

802.11ax-2021

Wi-Fi 6E

2021

2.4GHz, 5GHz, & 6GHz

10-12Gbps

801.11be

Wi-Fi 7

2024/2025

2.4GHz, 5GHz, & 6GHz

40Gbps

Not all old Wi-Fi standards are obsolete. At least, not yet. Here is a brief history of Wi-Fi standards and whether the standard is still active.

  • IEEE 802.11: The original! This now-defunct standard was created in 1997 and supported a blazing-fast maximum connection speed of 54 megabits per second (Mbps). Devices using this haven’t been made for over a decade and won’t work with today’s equipment.
  • IEEE 802.11a: Created in 1999, this version of Wi-Fi works on the 5GHz band. This was done with the hope of encountering less interference, since many devices (like most wireless phones) also use the 2.4GHz band. 802.11a is fairly quick, too, with maximum data rates topping out at 54Mbps. However, the 5GHz frequency has more difficulty with objects in the signal’s path, so the range is often poor.
  • IEEE 802.11b: Also created in 1999, this standard uses the more typical 2.4GHz band and can achieve a maximum speed of 11Mbps. 802.11b was the standard that kick-started Wi-Fi’s popularity.
  • IEEE 802.11g: Designed in 2003, the 802.11g standard upped the maximum data rate to 54Mbps while retaining the reliable 2.4GHz band. This resulted in the widespread adoption of the standard.
  • IEEE 802.11n: Introduced in 2009, this version had slow initial adoption. 802.11n operates on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, as well as supporting multi-channel usage. Each channel offers a maximum data rate of 150Mbps, which means the standard’s maximum data rate is 600Mbps.
  • IEEE 802.11ac: The ac standard is what you will find most wireless devices using at the time of writing. Initially released in 2014, ac drastically increases the data throughput for Wi-Fi devices up to a maximum of 1,300 megabits per second. Furthermore, ac adds MU-MIMO support, additional Wi-Fi broadcast channels for the 5GHz band, and support for more antennas on a single router.
  • IEEE 802.11ax: Next up for your router and your wireless devices is the ax standard. As 802.11ax completes its rollout, you will have access to a theoretical network throughput of 10Gbps—around a 30-40 percent improvement over the ac standard. Furthermore, wireless ax will increase network capacity by adding broadcast subchannels, upgrading MU-MIMO, and allowing more simultaneous data streams.
  • IEEE 802.11be: Although the specifications for 802.11be are yet to be finalized, it is highly likely that it will become the successor to 802.11ax. As per the IEEE Xplore paper, 802.11be will deliver “doubled bandwidth and the increased number of spatial streams, which together provide data rates as high as 40 Gbps.”

As mentioned above, the Wi-Fi 8 standard is in development, and its official name is currently IEEE 802.11bn.

Are All Wi-Fi Devices Compatible?

Two devices using the same Wi-Fi standard can communicate without restriction. Issues arise, however, when you try to connect two devices that use different, potentially incompatible wireless standards.

  • In recent times, your router and devices using 802.11ac can communicate happily.
  • Devices using 802.11b, g, and n can communicate with an ac router.
  • 11b cannot communicate with a, and vice versa.
  • 11g cannot communicate with b, and vice versa.

The original 1997 standard (now known as 802.11 legacy) is obsolete, while the a and b standards are nearing the end of their lifespan. So, yes, most Wi-Fi devices are compatible, but there are some quirks to the standard. Specifically, when you buy a new device, you know it’ll be compatible with your current Wi-Fi router. But it might not be the case if you have an older router using an older Wi-Fi standard.

For instance, if you bring home a shiny new 802.11ac router to beam Wi-Fi to all the dark recesses, it doesn’t mean your old device can suddenly use the ac standard. You will receive some of the router’s benefits, such as the range increase, but your connection is only as fast as the device’s Wi-Fi standard.

If your device uses 802.11n, it will only connect and transmit using the n standard.

What Is Wi-Fi 6?

Compatibility with older Wi-Fi standards is important, but what about the Wi-Fi standards we use now and the Wi-Fi standards that are to come?

Wi-Fi [Number] is the Wi-Fi Alliance’s wireless standard naming system. The Wi-Fi Alliance argues that the 802.11 terminology is confusing for consumers. They are right; updating one or two letters doesn’t give users much information to work with.

The Wi-Fi Alliance naming system runs concurrently with the IEEE 802.11 convention. Here’s how the naming standards correlate:

  • Wi-Fi 7: 11be (2024/2025)
  • Wi-Fi 6E: 11ax (2021)
  • Wi-Fi 6: 11ax (2019)
  • Wi-Fi 5: 11ac (2014)
  • Wi-Fi 4: 11n (2009)
  • Wi-Fi 3: 11g (2003)
  • Wi-Fi 2: 11a (1999)
  • Wi-Fi 1: 11b (1999)
  • Legacy: 11 (1997)

What Is Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6 became a widespread Wi-Fi standard throughout 2020. But by the end of 2020, another “new” standard was beginning to pick up the pace.

Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6. The update allows your Wi-Fi connection to broadcast over a new 6GHz band.

Previously, all Wi-Fi connections were restricted to two bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Those two frequency bands are busy, with each band broken down into smaller channels. For instance, if you live in an apartment building, many Wi-Fi routers may be attempting to broadcast on the same frequency, using the same channel.

This doesn’t mean your data will end up on your neighbor’s computer. That’s not how the modern packet-switching internet works. However, it can cause Wi-Fi performance issues, especially in congested areas.

Wi-Fi 6E creates 14 new 80MHz channels and seven 160Mhz channels, drastically increasing available network capacity for users. Those users in dense, congested areas will have substantially more bandwidth available, reducing Wi-Fi interference. In short, Wi-Fi 6E effectively quadruples the amount of space available to your Wi-Fi connection.

So, when can you get your hands on a new Wi-Fi 6E router? The first few Wi-Fi 6E-equipped routers will begin appearing throughout 2021, with Netgear being one of the first manufacturers to bring one to the market. But now, there are heaps of excellent Wi-Fi 6E routers you can buy to increase your Wi-Fi speeds.

What Is Wi-Fi 7?

You’ve barely unpacked your Wi-Fi 6E router, and the folks on the internet are already talking about Wi-Fi 7. Well, you don’t have to worry about the next-next generation of Wi-Fi just yet, as the official Wi-Fi 7 specification hasn’t been finalized. The IEEE is expected to finalize Wi-Fi 7’s specifications in early 2024, which means we’re unlikely to see devices using Wi-Fi 7 until at least 2025.

Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t consider Wi-Fi 7’s likely features:

  • Increased Bandwidth and Speed: Wi-Fi 7 is designed to deliver a maximum throughput of up to 40Gbps and 46Gbps [PDF], more than three times faster than Wi-Fi 6’s 9.6Gbps.
  • 320 MHz Channels: Wi-Fi 7 will support wider channel bandwidths, up to 320 MHz, compared to the maximum of 160 MHz on Wi-Fi 6. This allows for more efficient data transmission and can significantly increase throughput.
  • Multi-Link Operation (MLO): This feature allows devices to transmit and receive data over multiple frequency bands simultaneously. MLO can improve reliability and reduce latency by seamlessly switching between bands depending on network conditions. MLO is a very exciting development for Wi-Fi 7, effectively allowing devices to connect to multiple bands and enormously boosting the data transmission potential.
  • Higher Order Modulation: Wi-Fi 7 is expected to support 4096-QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation), a step up from the 1024-QAM used in Wi-Fi 6. In short, more data can be transmitted with each signal, increasing the overall data rate, meaning faster-feeling internet connections.

As said, the final Wi-Fi 7 specification isn’t complete, but we can be reasonably assured that these specs will be similar to the final product.

What Is Wi-Fi 8?

Wait, I hear you cry. Wi-Fi 7 isn’t out, so how can you talk about Wi-Fi 8? Well, the truth is that most of the conversation around Wi-Fi 8 is theoretical; there is no official working specification for Wi-Fi 8, and there have been no leaks or official details as yet. However, Wi-Fi 8 is likely to focus on a few key areas that will make Wi-Fi faster:

  • Increased Bandwidth and Speed: We would expect Wi-Fi 8 to massively increase Wi-Fi speeds, potentially pushing up to 100Gbps as a theoretical maximum (again, sounds incredible, but realistic speeds are likely to be slower).
  • Larger Wi-Fi Channels: Given previous generational increases, Wi-Fi 8 will likely bring larger Wi-Fi channels, allowing greater data throughput.
  • Integration of New Bands: While nothing is certain, some analysis suggests Wi-Fi 8 may include new, different Wi-Fi bands in its specification. For example, Wi-Fi Now notes that “there has been much debate about the inclusion of higher frequency bands like 60 GHz into the 802.11bn standard,” which would give Wi-Fi 8 access to millimeter-wave (non-cellular 5G) and, as such, blazing fast speeds.

As said, it’s all theoretical, but Wi-Fi 8 will come around quicker than we think. The Wi-Fi 8 launch date is expected around 2028, though like all new Wi-Fi standards, devices using the new technology will take time to hit the market. You might not be using a Wi-Fi 8 router until 2030!

Use the Latest Wi-Fi Standards for the Best Internet Speeds

Upgrading your devices to the latest Wi-Fi standard has heaps of benefits, and the boost to your internet speeds is often the one you’ll note most. But the other increases to bandwidth, data capacity, and security are also worth noting, and why you should take the chance to use the latest Wi-Fi standard where possible.

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