WLAN Protocols: Types & Characteristics

Instructor: Lyna Griffin

Lyna has tutored undergraduate Information Management Systems and Database Development. She has a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and a Masters degree in Information Technology.

In this lesson we will examine the different types of WLAN protocols. We will see how each protocol evolved in development over time from the first created standard. We will also understand their different characteristics and highlight their pros and cons.

What are WLAN Protocols?

WLAN stands for Wireless Local Area Network. A WLAN is a local area network using wireless connectivity. Wireless connectivity entails the use of high frequency radio waves which are transmitted through an access point. An access point is a hardware device that is used as a hub to propagate wireless signals. Think of a large fountain with a single spout (access point). As long as you stay within a certain distance of the center of the spout (coverage distance) you will always get wet (maintain signal connection). The same is true for the wireless access point. The access point allows all connected devices within a certain coverage area to maintain a network connection while in operation.

Like every other network, wireless data transmissions are governed by certain protocols which characterize the type and function of the network. WLAN protocols originated from the 802.11 standard protocol developed by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) Standards Committee. Subsequent protocols emerged from this standard.

Types of WLAN Protocols

802.11a Protocol

Technology: This protocol employs Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM), which is a modulation scheme well suited for the office environment, since digital data can be transmitted wirelessly over multiple frequencies.

Operating Frequency and Speed: This protocol achieves data transfer speeds as high as 54Mbps within a 5GHz frequency range. While this frequency is high, signals traveling at the 801.11a frequency have difficulty penetrating walls and other obstructive objects.

Pros: Signal coverage is comparatively less than other standards.

Cons: It is fairly expensive to implement.

802.11b Protocol

Technology: This protocol employs the multiple access method known as Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Avoidance (CSMA/CA) with Ethernet protocol.

Operating Frequency and Speed: It operates within the 2.4GHz range and supports 11Mbps bandwidth speed. Though this bandwidth is lower compared to 802.11a capacity, it greatly facilitates path sharing.

Pros: It is less vulnerable to obstructive interferences such as walls. Implementation is low-cost with a good data transmission signal.

Cons: 802.11b runs as the slowest maximum speed of 11Mbps compared to other protocols. Household appliances may cause interference with this protocol.

802.11g Protocol

Technology: The 802.11g protocol became the newest standard in the 802.11 family of protocols in 2002-2003. With 802.11g, a combination of characteristics from 802.11a and 802.11b are employed.

Operating Frequency and Speed: 802.11g supports both the 5GHz (802.11a standard) and 2.4GHz (802.11b standard) frequencies, which allows this protocol to operate at wider ranges with less vulnerability to obstructive objects. With these dual characteristics, 802.11g is backward compatible with 802.11b devices. This means that in their respective environments, their access points and network adaptors can work interchangeably. Communication nodes within the 802.11g environment can be reconfigured to run at the lower 11Mbps speeds.

Pros: 802.11g is characterized by high speeds, good signal range, and resilience to obstruction. It is also backward compatible with 802.11b

Cons: It is susceptible to household appliance interference if the signal frequency is not regulated correctly. It can also be more expensive to implement.

802.11n Protocol

Technology: The 802.11n protocol is a further improved addition to the 802.11 family of protocols. Also known as Wireless N, 802.11n is an upgrade of 802.11g. It makes use of Multiple Input/Multiple Output (MIMO) technology. This technology implements multiple antennas at both the transmitter end and receiver ends. This creates multiple alternate paths for signal transmissions. In the event that there is a potential obstruction along a certain transmission route, alternate routes are taken ensuring the smooth flow of data traffic. Picture a city having a single major road in and out vs. one with multiple entry and exit points.

Operating Frequency and Speed: Characterized by bandwidth capabilities of up to 600Mbps, it has high signal intensities. This produces better signal coverage with wider radio frequency channels.

Pros: It is highly resistant to external interference.

Cons: It incurs high implementation costs.

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