The Role of 802.11b Wi-Fi in Home Networking

A screen shot showing a laptop, tablet computer, desktop computer, wireless router, and two phones connected to the World Wide Web.
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The 802.11b standard was the first Wi-Fi wireless network communication technology to gain mass adoption with consumers. It is one of many Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standards in the 802.11 family. The 802.11b technology was replaced by the newer, faster 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi standards.

History of 802.11b Technology

Until the mid-1980s, the use of radio frequency space around 2.4 GHz was regulated by government agencies around the world. The U.S. Federal Communications Communication (FCC) initiated the change to deregulate this band, previously limited to industrial, scientific, and medical equipment (ISM). The goal was to encourage the development of commercial applications.

Building commercial wireless systems on a large scale requires some level of technical standardization among vendors. That's where the IEEE stepped in and assigned its 802.11 working group to design a solution, which eventually became known as Wi-Fi. The first 802.11 Wi-Fi standard, published in 1997, had too many technical limitations to be widely useful, but it paved the way for the development of a second generation standard called 802.11b.

802.11b was largely responsible for launching the first wave of wireless home networking. With its introduction in 1999, manufacturers of broadband routers such as Linksys began selling Wi-Fi routers alongside the wired Ethernet models they had been producing. Though these older products could be difficult to set up and manage, the convenience and potential demonstrated by 802.11b turned Wi-Fi into a huge commercial success.

802.11b Performance

802.11b connections support a theoretical maximum data rate of 11 Mbps. However, in common use, the technology didn't approach that speed. Its typical throughput speed under ideal conditions in a home network falls in the 4 to 5 Mbps range. Although rated comparable to traditional wired Ethernet (10 Mbps), 802.11b performs significantly slower than all the newer Wi-Fi and Ethernet technologies.

802.11b and Wireless Interference

802.11b transmits in the unregulated 2.4 GHz frequency range where it can encounter radio interference from other wireless household products such as cordless telephones, microwave ovens, garage door openers, and baby monitors.

802.11 and Backward Compatibility

Even the newest Wi-Fi networks still support 802.11b. That's because each newer generation of the main Wi-Fi protocol standards has maintained backward compatibility with all previous generations: For example,

  • 802.11g routers and access points support both G and B clients—called 802.11b/g networks.
  • 802.11n routers and access points support N, G, and B clients—802.11b/g/n networks.
  • 802.11ac routers and access points support AC, N, G, and B clients—802.11b/g/n/ac networks.

This backward compatibility feature has proven critical to the success of Wi-Fi, as consumers and businesses can add newer equipment to their networks and gradually phase out old devices with minimal disruption.