802.11n: The Wi-Fi Revolution Nobody Noticed

The 802.11n standard's performance and compatibility with older gear make it a no-brainer upgrade.

The world of wireless communications changed, quietly, about two years ago. That was when the WiFi Alliance announced that it was issuing a draft of the 802.11n wireless standard that device makers could use until the final standard was released in 2009. Well, 2009 came and the standard was ratified (in September). 11n Wi-Fi is real.

So why is this a seemingly non-event? Because the draft standard worked and because the standard has been adopted in piecemeal fashion.

Now that the standard has been ratified, what does it have to offer organizations that are still a Wi-Fi generation behind? And is 802.11n an all-or-nothing deal?

While 802.11n is a lot faster than previous standards-it will transmit data at speeds of up to 160M bps over short distances-it offers other improvements, as well. These include a better method of encoding packets, making delivery more reliable; support for QOS (quality of service); and support for MIMO (multiple input, multiple output), which allows the radios in wireless devices to use multiple antennas to improve reception. Last but certainly not least, 802.11n devices operate on both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands.

Analysts say 802.11n should trump all other Wi-Fi iterations.

"802.11n is the only technology that matters," said Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group. "If you're going to buy wireless technology, then buy 11n. We're there now, and there's no reason to wait."

Mathias said that because 11n-based new devices are compatible with previous versions of Wi-Fi, there's no risk-everything will just work better as portions of your network move to 802.11n.

In reality, though, there's a lot more to 802.11n Wi-Fi than just compatibility.

"The thing that makes 11n so compelling, besides the performance profile, is the explosion of dual-band support," said Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director for the WiFi Alliance. "It's very easy to have a network where you have people segregated on 5GHz and 2.4GHz. You get similar performance out of both frequency bands, and a lot of products work on both."

In addition to working on two frequency bands, 802.11n supports QOS tagging, which means that data requiring priority, such as audio and video, works a lot better in an 802.11n environment. This leads to, for example, the ability to deliver high-definition television over Wi-Fi-something that was never really feasible before.

But in the real world of most enterprises, streaming HDTV is probably not a major consideration for moving to the new standard. Instead, it's lower operational costs, higher reliability and easier management. "A lot of vendors will tell you about video," Mathias noted. "I don't think anyone is buying it exclusively for video."

Instead, you have more capacity and more control, according to Davis-Felner. "All the things that you've heard in terms of capacity, range and throughput are true-11n is truly an Ethernet replacement. There isn't a reason why you'd want to go to a wired alternative."

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...