5 min read

Wi-Fi vs 802.11

October 29, 2015

wi-fi vs 802.11

This blog is not intended to show these two essential organisations as competitors, but as two sides of a conversation striving to reach the same conclusion.
In high level terms the IEEE 802.11 committee are very clever individuals who create huge documents describing the process and physics of Wi-Fi – if you scratch below the surface and witness how complex Wi-Fi is, you will start to understand the level of engineers involved.

The Wi-Fi organisation is a non-profit association with, and I quote, “the goal of driving the best user experience with a new wireless networking technology – regardless of brand.”

The base version of the 802.11 standard was released in 1997, the Wi-Fi association was formed less than two years later – as nothing really worked!

The remit of the Wi-Fi association is to provide standard tests for both access points and clients to validate a new device works to a specific level on a range of competitor hardware. An expensive, but important role in the industry, which the majority of manufacturers now support.

In those halcyon days of early Wi-Fi, every vendor created their own chip sets and drivers, and optimised them to live in their own ecosystems. The primary customers for the 802.11 (no letters after it – just 802.11) were retail and warehousing as they had closed environments and huge efficiency problems which made the investment of $2,500 per access point a viable investment. This was for a 1Mb/s access point, typically connecting to a 10 Mb/s Ethernet, Thinnet or even Token Ring network running considerably faster than the Wireless device could manage.

(If you do not know the terms Thinnet or Token Ring then you are young enough to Google them!) 

The two main proponents of Wireless LAN back in 1997 were Symbol Technologies and Telxon – who do not seem to deserve a web presence any more – the Telxon company bought Telesystems which became Aironet – later to be purchased by Cisco.

Both Symbol and Telxon majored in hand held computers – such delights as the PTC 960 Telxon Gun Scanner – you may be able to guess it had a radio on board.

All of this worked very well as long as you bought the access point and the scanner gun from the same company – they may have been all 802.11 but the inter operation was very poor if it worked at all – there was no incentive for these companies to create interoperability. For the industry to progress beyond the bespoke hardware a better solution was required.

WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance) was formed in 1999 to test the interoperability of wireless systems. The name changed to the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2002 – just as a side point, Wi-Fi has no actual meaning. It is a throw back to Hi-Fi and that is all! Some entertaining suggested meaning are available.

I fear ‘Wireless Internet For Idiots’ is a little less than charitable!

It is thanks to the Wi-Fi Alliance that manufacturers no longer had to produce matching radio client cards for their access points. Manufacturing costs came down and wider adoption of the technology followed.

So in summary – IEEE802 create standards and Wi-Fi create tests and certifications. Both are essential and useless without the other.

Here follows a list of the main 802.11 standards and Wi-Fi certifications to show correlation:

Speeds and Feeds Standards

802.11 Wi-Fi Cert Description
a abg Generally clients are certified for a,b & g if they support ‘a’ at all. The critical factor with 802.11a support is that it is in the 5 GHz range so it is an important classification.
b Wi-Fi Certified The first standard to be certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance therefore the logo was just Wi-Fi Certified – no letters included.
g bg Any client that supports 802.11g will naturally support 802.11b as well so the certification usually references both. It should be noted that a card with this certification will only operate in the crowded 2.4GHz band.
n bgn 802.11n was the first high speed network and was available in 2.4GHz and 5GHz – unfortunately the Wi-Fi Alliance called both ‘n’ certification so it was often difficult for people to know if they bought an ‘n’ card in just 2.4GHz or dual band. If the Wi-Fi certification is ‘bgn’ it suggests as there is no ‘a’ support that the card is indeed a single band 2.4GHz card which should be avoided as it really cannot achieve good performance in most networks today.
n abgn 802.11n in the 5 GHz band usually receives the ‘a’ certification as well so this is the logo to look out for to make sure your ‘n’ device will operate at the best possible frequency.
ac abgn ac 802.11ac is the highest standard currently certified and it only operates in the 5GHz band so will usually be accompanied by all the other speed standards as they can all be backwardly compatible.


Ancillary Services Standards

802.11 Wi-Fi Cert description
e-2005 WMM Wi-Fi Multi Media – the original QoS standard included in the 802.11b specification was massively improved in stages referenced in the 802.11e-2005 standard, Wi-Fi offer a range of certifications dependent on how much of the standard is implemented.
i WPA/WPA2 The original WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) was rapidly discredited as it was never designed to be a security algorithm but was implemented as one. 802.11i provided several mechanisms for authentication and encryption which result in WPA / WPA2 authentication certifications from Wi-Fi.
k, v, r Voice Enterprise Roaming remains the biggest issue for Wi-Fi clients, there are a number of 802.11 standards that can help with roaming, the VE certification takes elements from 802.11k,v & r to validate and certify a standards based fast roaming experience.


Above are just the major current standards, the gaps in the lettering serve to illustrate the work that has been undertaken behind the scenes to make Wi-Fi work at all. 

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