802.11n, What Is It?

802.11n is, simply, the new standard for wireless or WIFI. So what does this mean to you; well 802.11n will provide a better wireless signal over the current standard 802.11b/g.

Think of wireless like Playstation, at first Playstation was pretty cool, and then Playstation 2 came out. PS2 ran faster, had fewer flaws, and more importantly could hold more memory and more storage for better games. Then comes along Playstation 3 and again we get a boost of speed, memory, and storage. Well WIFI has gone through the exact same change.

802.11b was the first universally accepted version of 2.4 GHz wireless. 2.4 GHz is important because this is a common, non-licensed frequency that most cordless phones, microwaves, even game controllers use to communicate. 802.11b wireless offered 11 Mbit/s in speed, 4.3 Mbit/s usable, and about 124 feet of radius coverage.

802.11g, introduced in 2003, offered 54 Mbit/s of speed, 19 Mbit/s usable, and about 124 feet of radius coverage. Like PS2 most wireless cards and access points designed for 802.11g were also compatible with 802.11b. This was a nice convenient way of allowing older technology to exist while allowing newer standards thrive on higher bandwidth speeds.

802.11n promises speeds of 248 Mbit/s, 74 Mbit/s usable, and near 230 feet of radius coverage. Like PS3 most wireless cards and access points will again be backward compatible and friendly to older technology. The only other major difference is that 802.11n will move to the 5 GHz range as well as the 2.4 GHz range.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The good news is that 802.11n will have higher speeds and better radius coverage. With around 74 Mbit/s of usable speed most users will find wireless closer to speeds of a wired connection. (The difference between usable speed and the marketed “Data Rates” is mostly due to the signals ability to communicate cleanly and quickly with the wireless card. Because most of the speed happens over the air, a great deal is lost when data collisions, packet processing, and authentication takes place. I’ve probably over simplified this but remember 74 Mbit/s is what you’ll actually be able to use.

The bad news is that 802.11n does not fix the common problem of overlapping channels, or interference. The 2.4GHz spectrum is crowded with devices, which is why most cordless phone manufactures switched to the 5 GHz spectrum, see the problem. 802.11n will use primarily the 5 GHz spectrum and will still be stuck interfering or being interfered with, cordless phones and other similar devices. The 5 GHz spectrum does help slightly with overlapping channels, a problem 802.11b/g is plagued with, but by only gaining the same amount of usable channels that 802.11a currently has only makes this a slight improvement. Skipping the 5 GHz frequency for something else could have drastically improved this issue.

The ugly news is that 802.11n will not be ratified and or released until at least fall 2008, but probably closer to June 2009. Why is this ugly, well because over the last six months several companies including Cisco, who owns Linksys, have released pre-release version of 802.11n wireless access points and wireless cards. Many customers are buying 802.11n products not realizing that the standardizations of 802.11n could change significantly and could leave their expensive product useless in the future. Cisco promises this will not be the case, and they should know as they hold a lot of weight with IEEE and the ratification process of 802.11n, but the risk is still significant. Other companies like HP are promising not to release any wireless 802.11n gear prior to the ratification, and although this comes with mix reviews they are banking their reputation on patience.

So what should you do? Well, if you have a home office, or just like having cool gear in your house or apartment, then feel free to buy an 802.11n wireless card and wireless router/access point. Your risk is probably small and getting the higher speeds and better distance will pay off. If you are looking for a company/business solution, I say wait. 802.11g still offers reliable service and at lower costs serve your business better today. Let 802.11n debut and fight through its growing pains before jumping on board. Your patience will serve you well, and your company’s bottom line won’t get hit twice when 802.11n goes through a last-second change that makes everything obsolete.

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