What are the different 802.11 WLAN standards?

802.11 encompasses several WLAN standards used in most devices capable of transmission. Transmission rates and speeds have increased significantly since its introduction in 1997.

What is IEEE 802.11?

At first glance, 802.11 or IEEE 802.11 may not mean much to many users even though we encounter it on a daily basis. The term describes WLAN standards and the access of a medium to the physical layer of a local wireless network. The terms Wireless LAN or Wi-Fi may be more familiar. The 802.11 standard was first published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1997 and then got integrated into various devices. Today, IEEE 802.11 is the best-known and most widely used technology for wireless networks. There are several WLAN generations.

The difference between WLAN and 802.11

Though 802.11 is sometimes used as a synonym for the term “WLAN”, that distinction isn’t quite correct. Wireless Local Area Network is a wireless Ethernet, i.e. a local network that doesn’t require cables. To build such a network, the 802.11 standard is required. This defines the physical layer in a local wireless network and enables access to this layer. In principle, it would be possible to use a different technology to build a network. However, since IEEE 802.11 is widely used, it’s often referred to as WLAN.

The evolution of IEEE 802.11

Since its introduction in 1997, 802.11 has constantly evolved. Its variants differ, for example, in terms of their transmission rates, and some aren’t compatible with one another. Some WLAN standards are no longer in use today. Although the first variant, called 802.11-1997, revolutionized network technology back in the day, its maximum data rate of 1 or 2 Mbit per second has been out of date for quite some time. In 2024, the IEEE 802.11be standard will be certified which is supposed to reach 45.1 GBit per second.

WLAN standards compared

There are major differences between the WLAN standards currently in use. Most devices use IEEE 802.11n (also known as Wi-Fi 4), IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) or - IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, respectively). Their specifications are as follows:

IEEE 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6/6E)
Theoretical transmission rate 300 MBit/s 867 MBit/s 1,200 MBit/s
Max transmission rate 600 Mbit/s 6,936 MBit/s 9,608 MBit/s
Reach Up to 100 m Up to 50 m Up to 50 m
Frequency area 2.4 GHZ + 5 GHz 5 GHz 2.4 GHZ + 5 GHz + 6 GHz
Transmission and receiving units 4 x 4 8 x 8 8 x 8
Channel width Up to 40 MHz Up to 160 MHz Up to 160 MHz
Modulation method 64 QAM 256 QAM 1024 QAM

The transmission speeds of 802.11

The maximum transmission speeds of the different 802.11 standards also vary. Here’s a list of the common variants compared to the initial standard:

IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi 1) IEEE 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6/6E)
Frequency 2.4 GHz 2.4 GHz + 5 GHz 5 GHz 2.4 GHz + 5 GHz + 6 GHz
Streams 1 1, 2, 3, 4 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
At 20 MHz channel width Up to 2 MBit/s Up to 300 MBit/s - Up to 574 MBit/s
At 40 MHz channel width - Up to 600 MBit/s - Up to 600 MBit/s
At 80 MHz channel width - - Up to 3,400 MBit/s Up to 4,804 MBit/s
At 160 MHz channel width - - Up to 6,936 MBit/s Up to 9,608 MBit/s

Note that maximum transfer rates are rarely achieved. In theory, performance and the conditions of transmissions play a role with 802.11. Other networks, long distances, thick walls and ceilings, or other obstacles can severely throttle transmission speeds. That means, in reality, rarely half the theoretical rate is achieved. On the other hand, transmission according to the 802.11 standard uses a shared channel that is used by several participants at the same time. This also affects the actual speed.


There are several other interesting network standards:

Find out more about the different network types in our Digital Guide.

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