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10-Minute Guide To Wi-Fi Standards

The different 802.11 and NIMO standards have different levels of throughput and security. Here's how you can make sense of the alphanumeric soups.
802.11g This is significantly faster than the older 802.11b standard, so this standard is the one found in most locations today. First launched in 2003, it was quickly welcomed by early adopters because it offered the speed (54 Mbps) that enabled better, faster connections, making Internet downloads much more practical than through the 802.11b standard. It's standard on most equipment today.

Due to the proliferation of existing 802.11 b LANs, access points and Wi-Fi cards, manufacturers of the equipment meeting the new standard also ensured their products were backwards compatible to the older standard. This meant not only that the products could be used interchangeably, but also that anyone or any company looking to upgrade could do so as necessary without concerns about a "forklift" upgrade. So the LAN could be upgraded immediately, then laptops as necessary.

Pre-N: This is the current state-of-the-art standard. It's called pre-n because it's an intermediate solution prior to the adoption of the 802.11n standard, which Hernacki expects to occur sometime in 2007. One of the unsettled issues is backward compatibility. Pre-N equipment enables speeds more than double that of 802.11g equipment, in the right environment.

Under 802.11n, speeds would increase even more. Additionally, the pre-N devices promise wide reach than the 802.11g devices. While this helps make wireless LANs wider reaching, it also raises some security issues. If, by late 2006, ratification looks immanent, Hernacki expects electronics stores to be swamped with 802.11n equipment -- pre-N equipment is designed for the "expected" standard -- for the 2006 holiday shopping season.

802.11i This is the basic wireless security standard. While 802.11i provides some security, it's cryptographically weak, so most companies require additional security. However, many individuals, despite warnings in computer columns and consumer-oriented technology publications, use this if they use any security at all.

802.1x This is a higher-level security standard than 802.11i and, like it, underlies the other 802.11 standards. This provides high-level authentication and security on the wireless networks, as well as access control. However, there are still some unsettled issues with this standard, so the IEEE has yet to ratify it.

MIMO This enables Wi-Fi devices to use multiple channels, enabling faster speeds, much like dual chipsets in a computer.

802.16 Like 802.11n, this standard has yet to be finalized. It's the standard WiMAX and competing technologies will use to provide urban-wide wireless coverage. Right now the different wide area network technologies don't work with one another. Once 802.16 is approved, they should. But that probably won't happen for a couple of years, according to Hernacki.