The ability of computers and wireless network cards to share information is made possible by a set of standards developed by IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.). This group had to overcome technical hurdles, commercial rivalries and FCC rule changes to enact standards by which devices can communicate wirelessly with each other.
In 1999 IEEE finalized the 802.11 standard for wireless local area networks, also called a LAN. A wireless LAN is simply any group of devices that are communicating with each other over a short distance (typically less than 150 feet). The most common LAN is a laptop exchanging data with a wireless router. The router is connected to the internet proving access to email and the web. A LAN could also be 2 computers wirelessly sharing files, music, or even playing networked games. A LAN can allow those on the network to access other devices like printers. Even the popular TiVo digital TV recording device can be connected to a wireless LAN to update programming via the internet or transfer a recorded TV show to a second TiVo unit.
The 802.11 standard can be thought of as a common language that the wireless devices speak. The language has been agreed upon by manufacturers. This universal language allows you to buy any brand of computer, any brand of wireless router, any brand of printer, and brand of network card, and have all these devices communicate without any problems.
The NumbersThe purpose of this guide is to provide information about those confusing numbers. The 802.11 standard consists of at least 5 versions, but this guide will just explain the two versions that are in popular every day use. 802.11b and 802.11g, commomly referred to as "b" and "g".
- 802.11b was established in 1999. This standard allows exchange of information at a speed of 11 Mbps (Megabits per second). This standard is already 7 years old, but is still an extremely popular standard for devices to operate with. The 11 Mbps rate of data exchange is the maximum speed. If conditions exist that make the data unreliable at this speed, the devices will try slower and slower speeds until accurate data transmission exists.
- 802.11g was established in 2003. This standard allows exchange of information at a speed of 54 Mbps. Like the "b" standard, the 54 Mbps rate is under ideal conditions and will automatically fall back to slower speeds if needed. This "g" standard can exchange information about 5 times faster than the "b" standard. As with most things, newer, faster, and better, this translates into costlier.
Is Starbucks running a 802.11b or 802.11g network?
It doesn't matter! The beauty of these standards are their backwards compatibility. A device using either standard can still communicate with another device of either standard. Your computer with a "b" network card can still talk to a "g" router. The reverse is also true. Your computer with a "g" card can still talk to a "b" router.
Network Speed Limit
The speed with which your network will be exchanging data is determined by the slowest device standard. A device running on the "b" standard can not exceed the 11 Mbps limit even when communicating with a faster "g" device. You may have installed a "g" network card in your computer, but will only get "b" speeds if connecting to a "b" router.
New and faster standards are being developed. Nobody knows what year any new standard will be released. They will no doubt be backward compatible with existing standards. Some manufacturers are experimenting with their own "tweaked" versions of the standards trying to get speed increases, but you are often limited to networks that are specific to that manufacturer's unique standard. At this time the "b" and "g" standards are the only official standards recognized and agreed on by IEEE and manufacturers.