This is the second instalment in a series of blogs covering the history of
Wi-Fi®. This part will look at how the technology has
progressed to the high speed connection we know today.
By the early years of the new millennium, as the benefits of wireless
connectivity became clear, Wi-Fi started to gain widespread popularity.
Hotspots popped up at coffee shops, airports and hotels as businesses and
consumers started to realize the potential for Wi-Fi to enable early forms of
what we now know as mobile computing. Home users, many of whom were starting
to get broadband Internet, were able to easily share their connections
throughout the house.
Thanks to the IEEE® 802.11 working group’s efforts, a
proprietary wireless protocol originally designed simply for connecting cash
registers (see previous blog) had become the basis for a wireless networking
standard that was changing the whole fabric of society.
Challenge Accepted: Improving Speeds
The advent of 802.11b, in 1999, set the stage for Wi-Fi mass adoption. Its
cheaper price point made it accessible for consumers and its 11 Mbit/s speeds
made it fast enough to replace wired Ethernet connections for enterprise
users. Driven by the broadband internet explosion in the early years post
2000, 802.11b became a great success. Both consumers and businesses found
wireless was a great way to easily share the newfound high speed connections
that DSL, cable and other broadband technologies gave them.
As broadband speeds became the norm, consumer’s computer usage habits
changed accordingly. Higher bandwidth applications such as music/movie sharing
and streaming audio started to see increasing popularity within the consumer
Meanwhile, in the enterprise market, wireless had even greater speed demands
to contend with, as it competed with fast local networking over Ethernet.
Business use cases (such as VoIP, file sharing and printer sharing, as well as
desktop virtualization) needed to work seamlessly if wireless was to be
Even in the early 2000’s, the speed that 802.11b could support was far
from cutting edge. On the wired side of things, 10/100 Ethernet was already a
widespread standard. At 100 Mbit/s, it was almost 10 times faster than
802.11b’s nominal 11 Mbit/s speed. 802.11b’s protocol overhead
meant that, in fact, maximum theoretical speeds were 5.9 Mbit/s. In practice
though, as 802.11b used the increasingly popular 2.4 GHz band, speeds proved
to be lower than that still. Interference from microwave ovens, cordless
phones and other consumer electronics, meant that real world speeds often
didn’t reach the 5.9 Mbit/s mark (sometimes not even close).
Wi-Fi evolution overview by release date, frequency and maximum data rate
With 802.11g Comes Cheaper Hardware and Backwards Compatibility.
To address speed concerns, in 2003 the IEEE 802.11 working group came out with
802.11g. Though 802.11g would use the 2.4 GHz frequency band just like
802.11b, it was able to achieve speeds of up to 54 Mbit/s. Even after speed
decreases due to protocol overhead, its theoretical maximum of 31.4 Mbit/s was
enough bandwidth to accommodate increasingly fast household broadband speeds.
Actually 802.11g was not the first 802.11 wireless standard to achieve 54
Mbit/s. That crown goes to 802.11a, which achieved this back in 1999. However,
802.11a used a separate 5.8 GHz frequency to achieve its fast speeds. While
5.8 GHz had the benefit of less radio interference from consumer electronics,
it also meant incompatibility with 802.11b. That fact, along with more
expensive equipment, meant that 802.11a was only ever popular within the
business market segment and never saw proliferation into the higher volume
By using 2.4 GHz to reach 54 Mbit/s, 802.11g was able to achieve high speeds
while retaining full backwards compatibility with 802.11b. This was crucial,
as 802.11b had already established itself as the main wireless standard for
consumer devices by this point. Its backwards compatibility, along with
cheaper hardware compared to 802.11a, were big selling points, and 802.11g
soon became the new, faster wireless standard for consumers and increasingly,
business related applications.
802.11n Brings Further Speed Improvements.
Introduced in 2009, 802.11n made further speed improvements upon 802.11g and
802.11a. Operating on either 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz frequency bands (though not
simultaneously), 802.11n improved transfer efficiency through
, and also introduced optional MIMO and 40 Hz channels – double the
channel width of 802.11g.
802.11n offered significantly faster network speeds. At the low end, if it was
operating in the same type of single antenna, 20 Hz channel width
configuration as an 802.11g network, the 802.11n network could achieve 72
Mbit/s. If, in addition, the double width 40 Hz channel was used with multiple
antennas, then data rates could be much faster – up to 600 Mbit/s (for
a four antenna configuration).
Part 1: The early years of Wi-Fi
Part 3: The future of Wi-Fi
NXP’s Wi-Fi portfolio