Learn Exactly How "Fast" a Wi-Fi Network Can Move

IEEE 802.11 network standards determine theoretical speeds.

The maximum theoretical speed of a Wi-Fi network is indicated by its Wi-Fi standard. Like most types of computer networks, Wi-Fi supports varying levels of performance, depending on the technology standard. Currently, the fastest standard is the 802.11ax standard, also called Wi-Fi 6, introduced in 2019. The 802.11ac standard is more common but that will soon change as more Wi-Fi 6 devices enter the market.

Wi-Fi standards are certified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Each Wi-Fi standard is rated according to its maximum theoretical network bandwidth. However, the performance of Wi-Fi networks doesn't match these theoretical maximums. The actual speed of a Wi-Fi wireless network connection depends on several factors. 

Before you buy a router, confirm that it runs the most current version of 802.11 along with several previous iterations. Older routers, on sale cheap because they're used, may be rated no higher than 802.11n or earlier.

Theoretical vs. Actual Network Speeds

An illustration of factors that affect internet speed.
Lifewire

Current Wi-Fi networks support a variety of standards.

An 802.11b network typically operates no faster than about 50 percent of its theoretical peak, around 5.5 Mbps. The 802.11a and 802.11g networks usually run no faster than 20 Mbps. Even though 802.11n rates at 600 Mbps compared to wired Fast Ethernet at 100 Mbps, the Ethernet connection can often outperform 802.11n in real-world usage. However, Wi-Fi performance continues to improve with each new generation of the technology.

You'll experience wide variation in the actual and theoretical speeds of most current Wi-Fi networks:

  Theoretical Actual
802.11b 11 Mbps 5.5 Mbps
802.11a 54 Mbps 20 Mbps
802.11g 54 Mbps 20 Mbps
802.11n 600 Mbps 100 Mbps
802.11ac 1,300 Mbps 200 Mbps
802.11ax 10 Gbps 2 Gpbs

What's Next?

Technically, the next wireless communications standard will be 802.11be (Wi-Fi 7), likely to be finalized by IEEE in 2024. Practically, however, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) is still gaining ground over 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5).

Factors Limiting Wi-Fi Connection Speeds

The disparity between theoretical and practical Wi-Fi performance comes from network protocol overhead, radio interference, physical obstructions on the line of sight between devices, and the distance between devices.

In addition, as more devices communicate on the network simultaneously, performance decreases due not only to how bandwidth works but also the limitations of the network hardware.

A Wi-Fi network connection operates at the highest possible speed that both devices, often referred to as endpoints, support. An 802.11g laptop connected to an 802.11n router, for example, networks at the lower speed of the 802.11g laptop. Both devices must support the same standard to operate at the higher speed.

The Role Internet Service Providers Play in Network Speed

On home networks, the performance of an internet connection is often the limiting factor in end-to-end network speed. Even though most residential networks support sharing files within the home at speeds of 20 Mbps or more, Wi-Fi clients still connect to the internet at the usually lower speeds supported by internet service providers.

Most internet service providers offer several tiers of internet service. The faster the connection, the more you pay. 

The Increasing Importance of Network Speed

High-speed connections became more important as streaming video gained in popularity. You may have a subscription to Netflix, Hulu, or some other video-streaming service, but if your internet connection and the network can't meet the minimum speed requirements, you won't be watching many movies.

The same can be said for video streaming apps. If you watch a TV with a Roku, Apple TV, or another streaming entertainment attachment, you spend much of your television-viewing time in apps for commercial channels and premium services. Without a sufficiently speedy network, expect to experience poor video quality and frequent pauses to buffer.

For example, Netflix recommends a broadband connection speed of only 1.5 Mbps, but it recommends higher speeds for higher quality: 3.0 Mbps for SD quality, 5.0 Mbps for HD quality, and 25 Mbps for Ultra HD quality. 

How to Test Your Network Speed

Your internet service provider may provide an online speed testing service. Just log on to your account, go to the connection speed page, and ping the service. Repeat the test at different times of day to arrive at an average benchmark.

If your internet service provider doesn't provide a speed test, plenty of free internet speed services test your network speed