The IEEE 802.11 Networking Standards Explained

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802.11 (sometimes called 802.11x, but not 802.11X) is the generic name of a family of standards for wireless networking related to Wi-Fi.

The numbering scheme for 802.11 comes from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), who uses "802" as the name of a committee for networking standards that includes Ethernet (IEEE 802.3). "11" refers to the wireless local area networks (WLANs) working group inside their 802 committee.

IEEE 802.11 standards define specific rules for WLAN communication. The best known of these standards include 802.11g802.11n and 802.11ac.

The First 802.11 Standard

802.11 (with no letter suffix) was the original standard in this family, ratified in 1997. 802.11 established wireless local network communication as a mainstream alternative to Ethernet. Being first generation technology, 802.11 had serious limitations that prevented it from appearing in commercial products - data rates, for example, 1-2 Mbps. 802.11 was quickly improved on and made obsolete within two years by both 802.11a and 802.11b.

Evolution of 802.11

Each new standard within the 802.11 family (often called "amendments") receives a name with new letters appended.. After 802.11a and 802.11b, new standards were created, successive generations of the primary Wi-Fi protocols rolled out in this order:

  • 802.11g (ratified in 2003)
  • 802.11n (ratified in 2009)
  • 802.11ac (ratified in 2013)

In parallel with these major updates, the IEEE 802.11 working group developed many other related protocols and other changes. The IEEE generally assigns names in the order working groups are kicked off rather than when the standard is completed. For example:

  • 802.11c - operation of bridge connections (moved to 802.1D)
  • 802.11d - worldwide compliance with regulations for use of wireless signal spectrum (2001)
  • 802.11e - Quality of Service (QoS) support (2005-2007)
  • 802.11F - Inter-Access Point Protocol recommendation for communication between access points to support roaming clients (2003)
  • 802.11h - enhanced version of 802.11a to support European regulatory requirements (2003)
  • 802.11i - security improvements for the 802.11 family (2004)
  • 802.11j - enhancements to 5 GHz signaling to support Japan regulatory requirements (2004)
  • 802.11k - WLAN system management
  • 802.11l - skipped to avoid confusion with 802.11i
  • 802.11m - maintenance of 802.11 family documentation
  • 802.11o - skipped
  • 802.11p - Wireless Access for the Vehicular Environment
  • 802.11q - skipped
  • 802.11r - fast roaming support via Basic Service Set transitions
  • 802.11s - ESS mesh networking for access points
  • 802.11T - Wireless Performance Prediction - recommendation for testing standards and metrics
  • 802.11u - internetworking with cellular and other forms of external networks
  • 802.11v - wireless network management / device configuration
  • 802.11w - Protected Management Frames security enhancement
  • 802.11x - skipped (generic name for the 802.11 family)
  • 802.11y - Contention Based Protocol for interference avoidance

The Official IEEE 802.11 Working Group Project Timelines page is published by IEEE to indicate the status of each wireless standard currently under development.

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