Wi-Fi Standards and Amendments

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Wi-Fi Standards
and Amendments

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021027

Publication Date: 2203

Report Type: STANDARD


Since 1999, wireless LAN (or Wi-Fi as it is most commonly known) has been
growing in usership, becoming an ever more integral part of the technologies we
use on a daily basis. Over its two decades of use, the technology’s growth and evolution have been managed by a coalition of
companies known as the Wi-Fi Alliance. This industry group is tasked with expanding
and adapting Wi-Fi to new and emerging needs while maintaining a set of
technical protocols that supports the widest possible range of devices and
services. This report is designed to help everyone understand where Wi-Fi has been, where
it is going, and exactly what the differences are between the various forms and
generations of Wi-Fi technology currently available and soon-to-be

Report Contents:


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Wireless LAN, or Wi-Fi as it is more commonly called, is a wireless
networking protocol designed and managed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry
group consisting of more than 600 participating members, all of whom take part
in the process of creating each amendment and revision to Wi-Fi technology. The
wireless method of connectivity has come to power everything from desktops,
laptops, and smartphones to televisions and smart appliances. Although it is available on countless devices and has gone through a mind boggling number of
updates and revisions, all currently available Wi-Fi technology is considered part of a single
standard: IEEE 802.11. This standard name consists of the abbreviation for the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the group that developed and approved the original
Wi-Fi protocol in 1997, followed by the number designation they
chose as part of their internal development process.1 Once the
original protocol was created, it was dubbed 802.11 – 1997 for the year it was
published. Since then, the Wi-Fi Alliance has switched to an alphabetical naming
system, with one or two letters designating the particular amendment of a given
Wi-Fi technology.2 Although the latest updated to the connection
technology has been designated Wi-Fi 6, the Wi-Fi Alliance continues to
designate each amendment with an IEEE 802.11 variant as well.

Figure 1. Wi-Fi Alliance Certification Logo

Figure 1. Wi-Fi Alliance Certification Logo

Source: Wi-Fi Alliance

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Some may be wondering, at this point, why amendments and updated protocols
are needed, why a single protocol cannot be updated continually to support new
devices. The
reason is twofold. First, each new amendment brings with it a new set
of technical standards. This could include a new, typically higher, throughput
rate for the data traveling over its network, a new operational
frequency for its radio signal, and even a greatly different maximum range when
compared to existing protocols. Despite these drastic changes, in nearly all
cases, newer Wi-Fi protocols can still connect to older Wi-Fi protocols
(beginning with 802.11a), with the slowest amendment in a given network
determining the maximum transfer speed. For example, a brand new
802.11ax laptop using one of the latest amendments can connect to an aged
802.11a wireless router. However, the user will not receive anywhere near the
throughput of up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) that the 802.11ax laptop is
theoretically capable of, but will instead be limited to the maximum of 54Mbps that the router
can produce. Despite the detrimental effect older Wi-Fi installation can have on
newer technology, this backward and forward compatibility is a huge
reason why Wi-Fi has become such a successful protocol, and one of the main
reasons why so many different variants can co-exist within the same company or
even the same network. 


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Existing Wi-Fi Amendments

Although the term "standard" is often
applied by the public to each revision of Wi-Fi, the Wi-Fi Alliance itself only considers
there to be a single Wi-Fi standard: IEEE 802.11. Each subsequent generation of
Wi-Fi is instead called an amendment by the group. These changes tended to
focus on increasing the throughput speed of Wi-Fi in its early days, but have
since been expanded to create specialized types of Wi-Fi with capabilities such
as low power consumption, extremely long operation ranges, good signal
penetration through man-made structures, and more. This section will examine, in
chronological order, each of the major Wi-Fi amendments that have been created
since the original 802.11 – 1997 protocol mentioned above, with a particular
focus on each amendment’s operating frequency, throughput capacity, and
potential maximum range. Descriptions will also be included to discuss how some amendments marked a special milestone or were designed for a particular purpose.
Finally, this section will also explore upcoming amendments that are slated for
future release with throughput speeds in excess of many
traditional Ethernet networks and the ability to connect IoT (Internet of
Things) devices in ways never seen before.

802.11 – 1997

  • Release Date: June 1997
  • Operating Frequency: 2.4GHz
  • Bandwidth Spread: 22MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: 2Mbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: ~66 feet (This
    figure and all subsequent indoor figures will be approximate as indoor range
    is highly dependent on obstructions, building materials, and other factors)
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 300 feet (This
    figure and all subsequent outdoor figures assume a clear, unobstructed line
    of sight between the connected devices)
  • Description: This was the first
    publicly available Wi-Fi version and is the only version that is, today,
    completely obsolete and no longer interoperable with subsequent amendments.
    It was developed by the IEEE using earlier innovations from the NCR
    Corporation and AT&T and was made possible by a 1985 Federal
    Communications Commission ruling in which the "industrial, scientific
    and medical (ISM) radio bands" were made available for public,
    unlicensed use.3 Although this version of Wi-Fi saw relatively
    little use outside of its role as a test-bed for the technology, it laid the
    groundwork for the next two amendments, which would bring Wi-Fi to the masses.


  • Release Date: September 1999
  • Operating Frequency: 5GHz
  • Bandwidth Spread: 20MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: 54Mbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: ~115 feet 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 390 feet 
  • Description: 802.11a was one of the two initial publicly
    available Wi-Fi technologies, along with 802.11b. Unlike 802.11 – 1997
    before it, and 802.11b alongside it, 802.11a relied on the much higher 5GHz
    frequency. This provided the benefit of less interference due to the lack of
    competing devices when compared with the typically crowded 2.4GHz band on
    which the other two amendments ran. However, it also had a side effect of
    reducing the effective range of 802.11a due to the relative inability for high-frequency radio waves to sustain over longer
    distances and to penetrate through solid objects. For this reason, among others, 802.11b
    eventually became the much more successful protocol of the two and would
    come to power most of the first Wi-Fi enabled devices many consumers would


  • Release Date: September 1999
  • Operating Frequency: 2.4GHz
  • Bandwidth Spread: 22MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: 11Mbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: ~115 feet 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 460 feet 
  • Description: As stated above, 802.11b
    was the first Wi-Fi amendment to reach most business and private customers.
    This resulted in the proliferation of Wi-Fi as a viable alternative to
    Ethernet or other wired networking technologies. However, like many early
    generation technologies, it came with drawbacks. The primary one
    was interference with other devices on the 2.4GHz band. This
    included cordless home phones, baby monitors, Bluetooth devices, and more.
    Although this could be alleviated somewhat by switching the channel on which
    the wireless network was operating (thus changing the precise bandwidth
    within the 2.4GHz range), it was an issue that would continue to plague
    Wi-Fi for years to come, albeit in reduced severity. That said, 802.11b
    was a massive success story, powering connectivity for laptops, PDAs, point
    of sale terminals, and many other devices.


  • Release Date: June 2003
  • Operating Frequency: 2.4GHz
  • Bandwidth Spread: 20MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: 54Mbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: ~125 feet 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 460 feet 
  • Description: Following
    a nice, long run of being the king of Wi-Fi, 802.11b was surpassed in 2003
    when the Wi-Fi Alliance released an amendment that combined the best aspects
    of 802.11a with those of 802.11b. This was made possible by joining the
    2.4GHz frequency of 802.11b with the Orthogonal frequency-division
    multiplexing (OFDM) technology used in 802.11a to give it boosted throughput.
    Unfortunately, the need for 802.11g to be backwards compatible with 802.11b
    resulted in a sizable difference between the theoretical maximum of 54Mbps
    and the real-world maximum, which tended to land closer to 22Mbps, even with
    all devices within the network running 802.11g. By most accounts, it took
    less than a year’s time before 802.11g usurped 802.11b as the most common
    form of Wi-Fi included in new products. This gave an early hint to the
    rapid rate at which consumers and businesses were willing to upgrade their
    wireless networks for faster data transfers.


  • Release Date: October 2009
  • Operating Frequency: 2.4GHz and 5GHz
  • Bandwidth Spread: 20MHz (2.4GHz band)
    or 40MHz (5GHz band)
  • Maximum Throughput: 65Mbps (2.4Ghz
    band) or 135Mbps (5GHz band)
  • Maximum Indoor Range: ~230 feet 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 820 feet 
  • Description: Coming
    over six years after 802.11g, 802.11n was the first Wi-Fi technology to
    break the long-held 54Mbps limit and the first to offer support for
    multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) technology. This fledgling
    technique could provide a theoretical speed boost by simultaneously using
    multiple antennas and frequencies to push through more data than any single
    channel could sustain alone.4 This, combined with the return of
    support for 5GHz frequency bands, resulted in significantly faster data
    transfer rates. As with 802.11g, adoption of this amendment was rapid and


  • Release Date: December 2012
  • Operating Frequency: 60GHz 
  • Bandwidth Spread: 2,160MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: 6.75Gbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: ~200 feet 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 30 feet 
  • Description: 802.11ad
    is an odd entry on this list, as it is the only amendment here not developed
    by the Wi-Fi Alliance itself. Instead, it was created by the Wireless
    Gigabit Alliance (WiGig), an industry group with the goal of developing and
    promoting multi-gigabit wireless networking technologies. Not long
    after its release, the amendment joined its brethren when the Wi-Fi
    Alliance unified with WiGig to become a single entity.5 The
    promise of the technology behind 802.11ad was massive, offering
    speeds that were impossible on even the fastest wireless networks. However,
    this came at the steep cost of being essentially useless in any situation
    where a wall or any other physical structure would obstruct the signal
    between two devices on a network. This weakness is due to the extremely high
    frequency at which the amendment operated, 60Ghz. Because of this limitation,
    as well as a seeming disinterest in adopting the technology among device
    manufacturers, the protocol never really caught on. However, the Wi-Fi
    Alliance is in the process of taking another crack at making a 60GHz amendment
    work with its recently announced plan to relaunch the protocol with a focus on "multi-gigabit speeds, low latency, and
    security-protected connectivity between nearby devices."6 


  • Release Date: December 2013
  • Operating Frequency: 5GHz 
  • Bandwidth Spread: 160MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: 780Mbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: 115 feet 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 600 feet 
  • Description: The
    newest of the publicly available general purpose Wi-Fi amendments at the time of writing,
    802.11ac offers maximum throughput approaching that of many 1Gbps Ethernet
    installations. It also supports the widest range of frequencies and broadest
    bandwidth of any protocol so far. Its 5GHz basis limits its range
    somewhat in comparison to 802.11n, but it does so with the benefit of higher
    speeds than 802.11n. It has also been updated since its
    release to support Multi-user MIMO
    (MU-MIMO). As its name suggests, this technology provides the same benefits
    as MIMO, but is able to support multiple simultaneous users. The result is
    faster speeds for wireless routers that are typically supporting multiple
    users at any given time. 


  • Release Date: February 2014
  • Operating Frequency: 54-790MHz 
  • Bandwidth Spread: 740MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: Variable
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Variable 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: Variable 
  • Description: 802.11af is a protocol
    designed to utilize publicly available "white space" spectrum in
    the UHF and VHF bands typically used by television broadcasters. Following
    the transition to digital television, the FCC freed a considerable amount
    of spectrum for public use.
    This made it possible to operate Wi-Fi based devices on frequencies that
    would have previously interfered with television broadcasts.7 Because
    these frequencies are publicly available, a system was included within the
    amendment’s guideline that requires the use of global positioning system
    (GPS) technology to query a database of frequencies currently in use within
    a given geographic area. This alleviates much of the risk of two device
    operators interfering with each other by identifying which
    frequencies are in use in which locales. Although the amendment has been
    proposed as a networking basis for many public installation projects, very
    few have actually come to fruition at the time of writing. 

802.11ah (HaLow)

  • Release Date: December 2016
  • Operating Frequency: 900MHz 
  • Bandwidth Spread: Unknown
  • Maximum Throughput: Unknown
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Unknown 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: Double the range
    of current 2.4GHz Wi-Fi protocols, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance 
  • Description: 802.11ah is designed
    specifically with the Internet of Things (IoT) in mind. The sub-1GHz
    protocol cannot match the likes of 802.11ac in
    terms of speed. Instead, it is designed to shine in two very specific areas:
    Range and power consumption. Although the Wi-Fi Alliance has not released
    any specific range figures, it claims the amendment is capable of doubling
    current 2.4GHz limits, while consuming considerably less power than current
    Wi-Fi hardware modules. This could theoretically make it possible for Wi-Fi
    based sensors to be installed with a plethora of new industries thanks
    802.11ah’s ability to run for extended periods on even a modest battery
    while providing continued connectivity thanks to its extended range.


  • Release Date: June 2017
  • Operating Frequency: 45GHz 
  • Bandwidth Spread: Unknown
  • Maximum Throughput: Unknown
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Unknown 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: Unknown 
  • Description: 802.11aj is a variation of the 802.11ad
    amendment with its operational frequency set to a somewhat lower 45GHz. The
    amendment is specifically tasked with providing a Fast Link Initial Setup (FILS)
    function, allowing devices to connect with each other in less than 100ms.


  • Release Date: February 2018
  • Operating Frequency: 45GHz
  • Bandwidth Spread: Unknown
  • Maximum Throughput: Unknown
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Unknown
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: Unknown
  • Description: 802.11aj is a variation of the 802.11ad
    amendment with its operational frequency set to a somewhat lower 45GHz. This
    amendment was designed specifically to aid in the operation of Chinese
    millimeter wave frequency bands around 60GHz. 8


  • Release Date: November 2019
  • Operating Frequency: 2.4GHz and
  • Bandwidth Spread: Unknown
  • Maximum Throughput: 10Gbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Variable
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: Variable 
  • Description: 802.11ax is closely based on the
    technology used in the very well received and widely utilized 802.11ac as
    opposed to the relatively unsuccessful 60GHz basis of 802.11ay.9
    Because of this, the 10Gbps potential throughput that the amendment can offer is
    much more practical due to its reliance on successfully utilized standards
    such as 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The Wi-Fi Alliance has, for the first time in
    its history, begun using a numeric designation to simplify the identity of
    its latest Wi-Fi protocol. It refers to this protocol as Wi-Fi 6, suggesting
    it intends to simplify its public-facing naming convention going forward.

Future Wi-Fi Amendments

Although none of the amendments in this section
are available in any publicly available products yet, they have been revealed or
hinted at by
the Wi-Fi Alliance, including at least part of their technical specifications.
While the industry group is, as ever, working towards faster and longer-range
Wi-Fi, it is also now branching out into more specialized forms that
are designed to connect specific types of electronics or are tailored to the needs
of specialized networks.


  • Expected Release Date: Unknown
  • Operating Frequency: 60GHz 
  • Bandwidth Spread: Unknown
  • Maximum Throughput: 40Gbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Unknown 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 1,650 feet 
  • Description: If this amendment can live up to its
    promise, it will provide transfer rates of up to 40Gbps at a distance in excess of any
    currently available Wi-Fi protocol.10 Despite being in
    development since 2015, the protocol had still not reached final
    ratification as of the time of writing. However, it did receive conditional
    approval from the 802.11 Working Group in November 2020, putting it very
    close to final ratification.


  • Expected Release Date: Unknown
  • Operating Frequency: 4MHz 
  • Bandwidth Spread: Unknown
  • Maximum Throughput: 250Kbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Unknown 
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: 32 feet 
  • Description: This amendment focuses providing
    connectivity with extremely low power consumption without increasing
    latency. Because of this limitation, the protocol provides much slower
    speeds than most standards, and has a shorter range. However, its ability to
    consume less than one milliwatt of power per packet could make it ideal for
    IoT applications where constant power is not available and only low data
    transfer rates are needed.


  • Expected Release Date: 2024
  • Operating Frequency: 2.4GHz, 5GHz, 6GHz
  • Bandwidth Spread: 320MHz
  • Maximum Throughput: 30Gbps
  • Maximum Indoor Range: Variable
  • Maximum Outdoor Range: Variable 
  • Description: 802.11be is the standard most like to become
    Wi-Fi 7, or the next dominant general use Wi-Fi amendment. It is designed to
    provide the same level of versatility as Wi-Fi 6, while increasing its
    potential speeds to at least 30Gbps. Development of 802.11be is still
    relatively early, meaning its speeds, range, and frequency use are all still
    somewhat in flux. However, IEEE hopes to have a ratified version of the
    protocol ready for use by the general public sometime in 2024.

Current View

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As things stand today, Wi-Fi has become an integral part of the daily lives
of most first-world citizens. It powers our smartphones, laptops, televisions,
gaming consoles, tablets, and even smart appliances. Its effortlessness has left much of the populace spoiled when
compared to the old days of requiring an Ethernet cable or phone line just to
connect to the Web. That is not to say that it does not still have its
drawbacks. Real-world speeds are often only a fraction of what a wired network
can still provide, and interference remains an issue despite the best efforts
of regulators and designers. However, the technology has, so far, managed to
keep up with the demands of all but the most stringent tasks. For example,
current publicly available Wi-Fi technology is fully capable of supporting
high-definition streaming of video content, but may struggle when trying to
maintain a full 4K-resolution stream over a long distance or in an area with an
unusually high level of signal congestion. Thankfully, cases such as these are
the outliers, with most consumers having little or no issue with their Wi-Fi


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Wi-Fi may be an integral part of our everyday lives today, but it is
expected to become an even larger part of even more lives in
the relatively near future. This is due to two factors that will power its
growth going forward: Speed and use cases. On the speed side of things, Wi-Fi is
getting faster with every generation. Currently available devices are now
capable of throughput rates in excess of 100 times what some of the first Wi-Fi
devices could provide at their time of release less than two decades ago. This
rapid acceleration is expected to continue, with amendments currently on the
table that are capable of 3-4 times the 10Gbps maximum speed we have achieved today.
Advancements like these will make it possible for Wi-Fi to replace wired
connections in some of the most demanding settings imaginable. Whole data
centers could eventually run on wireless signals, obviating the need for the
miles of cabling that typically carry information across such facilities’

While speed is, of course, always an important driver within the IT world,
versatility is a boon to all technologies. Thankfully, Wi-Fi is poised to be
more versatile than ever. This is extremely important at a time when the number
of connected devices is growing at a faster rate than has ever been seen before.
More and more formerly unconnected varieties of electronic devices now require
an Internet connection to fulfill their role as part of the Internet of Things.
From everyday gadgets like thermostats and lighting systems to entire fleets of
commercial shipping containers and arrays of scientific sensors, connected
devices are popping up everywhere. In most cases, these new entries into the
Internet would not be practical to connect via wired methods. This leaves the
job up to Wi-Fi, which has performed admirably for a technology that is more
than two decades old. That is because of the fact that Wi-Fi continues to
evolve, with new amendments like 802.11ah (HaLow) and 802.11ba arising to address the needs
of this greatly expanded Internet of Things.


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About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information Services. He
tracks and writes about enterprise software, the Web, and the IT services
sector, as well as telecommunications and data networking.

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