All About n: Wi-Fi’s Newest Letter

wifi_logo.gif9 years ago I purchased my very first Apple Airport base station. It was a revolutionary product: it provided wire-free internet browsing.

I hung it in a prominent location in my office. Its unusual flying saucer shape was very eye-catching. Clients always asked about it.

And then as I demonstrated wireless web browsing on my PowerBook, they would look at me as though I were some kind of witch doctor. This provided me all the voodoo license I needed to raise my consulting rates on the spot without explanation.

Of course, Wi-Fi is everywhere these days. Virtually every device, from handheld video game systems to cars, is Wi-Fi-enabled.

But the technology that supported my Airport base station in 1999, called 802.11b, pales in comparison to a new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, that’s crept onto the market over the last year or so.

But what’s the difference? And, more importantly, should you think about upgrading to the latest and greatest even if you’ve already got a Wi-Fi network in place at home?

802.11b was one of the first wireless networking standards to emerge from an organization called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.

“802.11” is a family of wireless networking technologies that’s more commonly referred to as Wi-Fi.

The letter that comes after 802.11 indicates a generation in the family.

Each Wi-Fi generation has primarily improved on its predecessor in three ways: speed, stability, and range.

For example, the theoretical top data rate you could get from my old b-grade Airport base station was 11 Mbit per second.

The current generation, 802.11n, can potentially transfer data at a rate as high as 300 Mbit per second. You’re more likely to get something like 74 Mbit per second in the real world, though.

That’s quite a difference, and it approaches the speeds that wired networks are capable of.

Another thing 802.11n has going for it is operating frequency.

It’s moved from the 2.4 GHz spectrum of its predecessors to the 5 GHz spectrum.

This means that it’s less susceptible to disruption from other electronics like cordless telephones, microwaves, and even fax machines.

(Quick sidebar: 802.11a, the orphan generation of the family, also used the 5 GHz spectrum. But way back in 1999 it was expensive to produce 5 GHz hardware components. So very few companies implementated this generation, despite the fact it was faster and more stable than 802.11b.)

One of the biggest bonuses in 802.11n is range.

Most people these days have b- and g-grade wireless routers. These devices have an indoor range of up to 35 metres — if you’re lucky. In fact, they’re pretty good at covering some of the house, but most people experience blind spots or have trouble when they need to connect wirelessly through a lot of walls.

802.11n effectively doubles the distance for indoor connectivity and improves the signal durability through walls and floors.
Clearly, 802.11n beats its older siblings as a quality Wi-Fi standard. It’s faster, more stable, and has great range.

In practical terms, though, that doesn’t really mean much.

After all, most people just use Wi-Fi as a wireless means of connecting to the internet in their homes or at a café.

And 802.11n is unlikely to make your experience with the internet any faster.

That’s because the bottleneck in your internet access is not your Wi-Fi network. It’s actually the connection itself to your internet provider.

Most high speed ADSL and cable internet connections offer a theoretical data access rate of anywhere from 2 to 6 Mbits per second. That’s less, even, than ye olde 802.11b.

So jumping on the 802.11n bandwagon won’t kick your BitTorrent sessions into high gear.

Of course, the exceptions to that statement are obvious. If you have your old 802.11b/g router buried in the basement and your Mac is way up on the third floor, then the improved signal range and more robust operating frequency of 802.11n may improve your access to the internet.

Another matter to look at when considering an upgrade is compatibility. Unless you have a device that’s 802.11n-capable, you won’t gain any benefit from an 802.11n router. You might have to upgrade some of the guts of your computer, or just buy a whole new unit.

For example, I have three computers, but only one contains a Wi-Fi card that can “talk” 802.11n. My 802.11n router communicates with the other two in the slower and less robust 802.11g tongue.

Really, 802.11n is all about improving your home network. If you have a number of n-grade computers and you transfer lots of big, fat files like movies around between them, then an upgrade to 802.11n will be bliss for you.

Otherwise, meh.

Gone are the days when you could fleece your clients just because you were the first kid on the block with wireless internet. Heck, every kid on my block’s got it now.

But that’s okay, because even after almost a decade, surfing the web without strings retains its je ne sais quoi.

Unfortunately, the new n-grade standard doesn’t improve too much on that.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 19, 2008.