What is 802.11ax, 802.11ad, 802.11ac, and 802.11n? What is Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 5 and so on?

We are living in the age of the internet and wireless connections, and most people use a wireless router in their homes. Wi-Fi has become a common term in our vocabulary, but the wireless networking standards are not easy to digest and understand. After all, they have complicated names, invented by network engineers and corporations. Do you know what 802.11ax is? What about 802.11ac, 802.11ac Wave 2, 802.11n or 802.11ad? Did you hear the news that these names are changing into things like Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 4? Do you want to understand what all that means and why it matters when you are buying a wireless router or a new laptop? If you do, read on:

What is 802.11n, also known as Wi-Fi 4?

802.11n, under its full name IEEE 802.11n-2009, is a wireless networking standard that was published in 2009. Wi-Fi 802.11n is also referred to as Wi-Fi 4.

The 802.11n standard allows the use of two radio frequency bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and can deliver data transfer speeds of up to 600 Mbps. Wi-Fi 802.11n was also the first wireless standard that offered support for MIMO (multiple-input-multiple-output). MIMO is a technology that allows the use of multiple antennas to transmit more data, by combining independent data streams.

ASUS RT-N18U - a wireless router uses the 802.11n standard

What is 802.11ac and 802.11ac Wave 2?

802.11ac, or IEEE 802.11-ac, is a wireless networking standard that was published in late 2013. Wi-Fi 802.11ac is also known as Wi-Fi 5.

The 802.11ac is the most common wireless standard today, as most routers sold during the last few years are 802.11ac-compatible. This standard, just like the 802.11n before it, supports MU-MIMO, but it can offer maximum data transfer speeds of up to 2.3 Gbps. The 802.11ac works only on the 5 GHz frequency band, but most of the wireless routers that support it also offer support for the 802.11n standard on the 2.4 GHz frequency band.

The properties of a wireless network that is using 802.11ac

802.11ac devices are split into two categories called 802.11ac Wave 1 and Wave 2. The products that are sold as part of the 802.11ac Wave 1 were introduced to the market in 2013, while the ones in Wave 2 were introduced in 2016. 802.11ac Wave 2 is an improved version of the 802.11ac standard. The 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless routers have higher throughput and add support for MU-MIMO: while the Wave 1 routers can provide speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps, the ones in Wave 2 can deliver speeds of up to 2.3 Gbps. Therefore, if you buy a wireless router today, it is a good idea to check that it offers support for 802.11ac Wave 2, to benefit from improved wireless speed and coverage.

What is 802.11ax?

802.11ax or IEEE802.11ax is a wireless networking standard that is still in the works and has not yet been approved. It is expected that it will be finalized and approved sometime during late 2019, as shared by ZDNet: Next-generation 802.11ax wi-fi: Dense, fast, delayed

802.11ax is also referred to as Wi-Fi 6. It is also known as High-Efficiency Wireless (HEW) and is designed to work in the same 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands. It appears that it will also be capable of working with additional bands between 1 and 7 GHz when they become available. The 802.11ax wireless networking standard aims to improve the average data transfer speeds by up to 4 times more than the 802.11ac standard. It should offer significantly improved wireless speeds especially in crowded places such as airports, restaurants, coffee shops and so on.

ASUS RT-AX88U - The first consumer wireless router with support for 802.11ax

What is 802.11ad?

The IEEE 802.11ad wireless standard is a wireless networking standard that is also known as WiGig or 60 GHz Wi-Fi.

The 802.11ad standard is a form of Wi-Fi that instead of using traditional wireless frequency bands such as 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz, uses a microwave section of the radio spectrum, running at about 60 GHz. It allows for incredibly fast data transfer speeds of up to 7 Gbps. However, because it works on a microwave range frequency, it has the significant disadvantage of not being able to pass through walls and has a range of only 3 to 32 feet (1 to 10 meters). It is very fast, but it is designed to cover only your living room when no walls or obstacles stand in the way.

Netgear Nighthawk X10: A wireless router with support for 802.11ad

What is Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 4 and so on?

On October 3, 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that it added a new naming for the main wireless networking standards, to make it easier for people to identify them. After all, 802.11ax, 802.11ad, 802.11ac, 802.11n, and all the other similar names are not easy to remember, and most people have no idea what they mean. Their thinking is that Wi-Fi followed by a number is easy to remember, and the rule is that the higher the number, the newer and the better the standard.

If you read the previous sections of this article, you already know by now what Wi-Fi 6, 5, and 4 mean. However, to summarize, here is what they are:

  • Wi-Fi 6 identifies devices that support the 802.11ax wireless networking standard
  • Wi-Fi 5 identifies devices that support the 802.11ac wireless networking standard, including 802.11ac Wave 2
  • Wi-Fi 4 identifies devices that support the 802.11n wireless networking standard

Wi-Fi 1, Wi-Fi 2, and Wi-Fi 3 are not branded. That is likely because Wi-Fi Alliance did not consider older Wi-Fi standards to be in common use today. However, for the sake of completion, we believe that a correct branding would have been:

  • Wi-Fi 1 should have been 802.11b. This standard was released in 1999, it uses the 2.4 GHz band, and it has a data rate of up to 11 Mbps.
  • Wi-Fi 2 should have been 802.11a. It was released in 1999, it uses the 5 GHz band, and it has a data rate of up to 54 Mbps.
  • Wi-Fi 3 should have been 802.11g. This standard was released in 2003, it uses the 2.4 GHz band, and it has a data rate of up to 54 Mbps.

To help you understand better what each of the main Wi-Fi networking standards offers, we made this table:

A table that compares the main Wi-Fi networking standards today

NOTE: The Wi-Fi Alliance is an alliance of the major computing manufacturers from all over the world, that develops and publishes the Wi-Fi networking standards, so that all the tech industry follows them, and develops wireless devices that are compatible with each other. Without Wi-Fi Alliance, we would not have good interoperability between wireless routers and wireless devices such your laptop, and smartphone.

Do wireless routers use one or more Wi-Fi standards?

Yes, they do! Most of them! Manufacturers make wireless routers that can work on one, two or even three bands simultaneously while supporting different 802.11 wireless standards on each band. Although single-band wireless routers are cheaper, people prefer to buy and use dual-band or tri-band routers because they offer more speed and compatibility with various devices that they own, which can work on newer but also older standards.

All the wireless routers sold today have support for the 802.11n standard (usually on the 2.4 GHz band), and also add support for the 802.11ac standard (on the 5 GHz band). High-end wireless routers do all that but can also include a third band (on 5 GHz or even 60 GHz) that is used for newer standards such as 802.11ac Wave 2, 802.11ax or 802.11ad.

Setting the wireless mode on a router

Whether you have a single-band, dual-band, or tri-band router, the good thing is that the firmware should let you choose what Wi-Fi standards and bands you want to enable and use. You can select whether to activate only the 2.4 GHz band and the wireless standards supported on it, or you can choose to activate only the 5 GHz band and the wireless standards supported on it. Furthermore, you can also enable all the bands and all the wireless standards available on your router, mixing everything to get the best results for your network.

Do you plan on getting new devices that support newer Wi-Fi standards?

Are you using Wi-Fi 5 compatible devices? Do you believe that it is worth upgrading to the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard or is it too soon to invest in it? Comment below and share your opinion about all the wireless networking standards, their naming conventions, and features. Also, if you have questions that need answering, do not hesitate to ask below.