What exactly is WiFi, and where did it come from? How does it work? Read on in our guide to find out how this helpful – yet mysterious – technology has evolved over time to become an integral part of all of our daily lives.
While it didn’t look anything like what we know it as today, the very first wireless transmission of data between two machines actually took place long before the internet even existed. Back in 1971 at the Univeristy of Hawaii, several engineers were trying to find a way that they could quickly send packets of computer bytes to and from each other between the different islands in the state.
By jerry-rigging a HAM radio setup, professor Norman Abramson was able to successfully send a package from his base station to a receiver on Kauai. Unfortunately, because of the immense requirements of the equipment necessary to make it work, the tech would lie dormant until the mid-90’s, when in 1997 the IEEE (Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers) the 802.11 wireless transmission spectrum was born.
But what do all these letters mean?
Well, in simple terms, each letter you see at the end of “802.11” (which itself comes from the different technologies used to send/receive data) denotes the generation of the wireless transmission spectrum that’s being employed. For example, when the standard was first implemented, the premiere generation was known simply as “802.11”, which was quickly changed to 802.11b in 1999. The “b” means that the device you’re connecting with has a maximum transfer speed of 11 Mbits per second (around 1 ½ megabytes per second), while the next generation, 802.11a, could max out around 54Mbits per second over the 5GHz transmission spectrum (more on that later).
Going down the scale we find an increasing amount of progression from there. Any devices or routers with the 802.11g specification, introduced in 2003, could theoretically connect to the same devices that support 802.11b, albeit with much less interference on the 2.4GHz spectrum. 802.11g also benefited from a more reliable signal, which wouldn’t be as easily disrupted by other devices that shared the 2.4GHz spectrum like baby monitors, microwaves, and cordless telephones.
Devices and routers that could support both b and g devices were what was known as a “dual-band” device. Nowadays most routers have “tri-band” support, for any smartphones, tablets, or laptops that want to connect wirelessly either on the b, g, or “n” transmission standard. 802.11n is the second-to-most recent implementation of the technology, ratified in 2009, and it enables what’s known as “MIMO” transmission, or “Multiple-in, Multiple-Out”. Without boring anyone with the gritty technical details of the technology, it’s helpful to know that MIMO basically increases both the range and the transmission rate of a router, while decreasing the amount of packet loss that devices might experience while running activities like streaming music, movies, or gaming.
Last up, there’s the newest standard in WiFi interfacing: “ac”. AC is still a relatively new introduction into the world of consumer routers, but it’s also one of the most advanced. AC transmits data at blazing fast speeds either on the 2.4GHz or 5GHz spectrum, capable of sending/receiving a maximum of 1 Gbit/s (or 1,000 Mbit/s) on the former, and upwards of 2.16 Gbit/s on the highest end models.
2.4 GHz vs. 5GHz
As we mentioned earlier, the two spectrums that WiFi devices use to communicate are 2.4GHz and 5GHz, which refers to the size of the wave that a router uses to send or receive data. If you’ve bought a new router in the past few years, you’ve probably seen that it gives you the option to set up a connection on either a 2.4GHz or 5GHz network (or both at the same time).
2.4GHz is generally considered to be the faster of the two, however this only applies if you live in an area that doesn’t experience a lot of interference from outside noise caused by Bluetooth devices, other routers, or home appliances. Conversely, the 5GHz spectrum is much less crowded, however because the wavelength is smaller, it suffers from a greater loss in speed when it has to go through multiple obstacles to get from the router to the device. If your router is downstairs and your laptop is upstairs, this means a 5GHz connection would need to go through the floor and multiple walls to get to its intended destination, which can drastically alter its overall performance where a 2.4GHz connection would otherwise be able to cover without a problem.
These settings can be more finely tuned by changing the “channel width” that each network uses to communicate through the spectrums of 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The full width of the 2.4GHz spectrum goes from 2412MHz to 2472MHz, with 5MHz of space between each channel’s center frequency and a channel bandwidth of 20 – 40MHz. The number of available channels will also vary depending on the country you’re in, as the standards for each region are managed by centrally governed bodies that have different rules about how each channel can be used by specific routers or wireless devices.
In North America, router manufacturers are only permitted to distribute wireless hubs that work within 11 channels, while the rest of the world enjoy two more at 13. By default, most routers in the US on the 2.4GHz network are tuned to either channel 1, 6, or 11.The 5GHz network has quite a few more channel options by comparison, covering a frequency range of 5180MHz to 5825MHz. 5GHz channels are generally spaced 10MHz apart and can have varying bandwidth (ranging from 20MHz to 160MHz).
So, now that we know where the technology started, how can you best put it to use today? Tune in next week as we break down all this information into practical terms, giving you the info you’ll need to know whether or not it’s time to upgrade that router, tweak the settings on your old one, and get your internet speeds blazing into the 21st century.