How Fast Is a Wi-Fi Network?

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The speed of a Wi-Fi wireless network connection depends on several factors. Like most kinds of computer networks, Wi-Fi supports varying levels of performance depending on which technology standards it supports.

Each Wi-Fi standard is rated according to its maximum theoretical network bandwidth. However, the performance of Wi-Fi networks practically never approaches these theoretical maximums.

Theoretical vs. Actual Network Speeds

802.11b networks generally operate no faster than about 50 percent of theoretical peak, around 5.5 Mbps.

Likewise, 802.11a and 802.11g networks generally run no faster than 20 Mbps. Even though 802.11n rates at 300 Mbps compare 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.

Tip: See how fast your Wi-Fi connection is with a free internet speed test.

Here's a Wi-Fi speed chart that compares the actual and theoretical speeds of a Wi-Fi network:

802.11b11 Mbps5.5 Mbps
802.11a54 Mbps20 Mbps
802.11g54 Mbps20 Mbps
802.11n300 Mbps100 Mbps
802.11ac7,000 Mbps2,100 Mbps

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, its performance will also decrease 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 (endpoints) can support. An 802.11g laptop connected to an 802.11n router, for example, networks at the lower speeds of "g". In other words, both devices need to support the same standard in order to operate at those speeds.

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.