The Current and Future State of WiFi RF Bands and Channels
Unless you have spent the last ten years in a cave or on a small, isolated island in the South Pacific, you have been exposed to WiFi technology. Wireless networks that enable users to connect to the Internet from just about anywhere have enjoyed tremendous popularity, driven in part by the proliferation of smartphones and mobile devices. Free WiFi is offered by numerous commercial establishments as a courtesy to their customers and more home WiFi networks are being implemented every day.
Wireless networks are significantly more complicated than more traditional wired installations. For starters, there are additional hardware components that are used in a WiFi network. Devices such as wireless routers, WiFi extenders, and signal boosters add complexity to the network. Maintaining a WiFi network entails understanding the underlying concepts that make them run.
Two aspects of WiFi networks which are critical to their operation are bands and channels. Understanding how these entities affect your network can be instrumental in enabling you to optimize its operation and troubleshoot problems. A closer look at these vitally important characteristics of WiFi networks is in order, so let’s get started.
WiFi Frequency and Bands
WiFi networks eliminate the need for cabling by transmitting data through the use of radio waves. Specific frequencies are used for this transmission. The most commonly used frequencies are the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Other frequencies such as 60 GHz are used in some settings, but the typical WiFi network that you will come in contact with will be broadcasting on the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band.
The WiFi frequency that your network employs is controlled by its WiFi router. This essential component of a wireless network converts Internet signals that it receives through a modem into radio waves that are broadcast throughout its coverage area. Conversely, the router translates radio signals sent from network-attached devices into data suitable for transmission to the Internet through the same modem. WiFi can also be used for internal networks that do not require the translation of data between the modem and connected devices.
Routers come in a variety of styles. It is common to find dual-band routers in use, which can host two networks simultaneously by broadcasting at the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies at the same time. Tri-band routers add another 5 GHz network to the mix and can run three networks from a single device.
In the world of computers and electronic devices, faster is almost always better. While a 5 GHz network is theoretically faster than one broadcasting at 2.4 GHz, there are several characteristics of each frequency band that need to be considered when choosing which one to use.
2.4 GHz Band
Data transfer speeds of up to 300 Mbps are achievable with a 2.4 GHz WiFi signal. This speed can be negatively affected by the wireless standards supported by your router. You may also experience degraded network performance due to the fact that many other devices use the 2.4 GHz band for communication. Interference from equipment such as cordless phones or microwaves can slow down your network.
Higher frequency radio signals have a shorter range. For this reason, the 2.4 GHz band provides a larger coverage area than the 5 GHz alternative. The 2.4 GHz waves are also better at penetrating solid objects, which can be an important factor for wireless networks located in homes.
The top speed of a 5 GHz network is rated at around 1300 Mbps. This is substantially faster than the 2.4 GHz frequency and makes it a better choice for streaming video content and gaming. This type of network will not provide the same range as 2.4 GHz without employing additional equipment. The same can be said for providing full household coverage. You may need WiFi extenders or extra access points to fully utilize the speed of a 5 GHz implementation.
Within each frequency band, the radio signals are broken up into a number of channels. The channel is the actual conduit for the radio waves that drive your WiFi network. There are 14 channels available in the 2.4 GHz band, but only the first 11 are used in North America. Europe and Japan use the first 13 channels.
There are 90 MHz available for these channels which are each 22 MHz in width and require a 5 MHz gap between channels. This leads to channel overlap, with a maximum of three non-overlapped channels available. The standard is to use channels 1,6, and 11 for transmitting from your WiFi router.
There are many more channels available in the 5 GHz frequency band. A large number of these channels are not used by your router to deliver data to your network. Channel overlap is not as much of a concern with a 5 GHz network. You are also subject to less interference from other devices in the home or office as most do not use this frequency.
How Channels Affect Performance
The performance of your network can be negatively impacted by overloaded and overlapping channels. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons that you may be unsatisfied with the speed and reliability of your WiFi network. Even if you are the only user of a home network you can be affected by other WiFi networks located nearby.
The ability of the 2.4 GHz frequency band to penetrate solid objects results in users from other networks interfering with your network performance. If you and your neighbors are using the same channel, the speed and reliability of both networks will suffer. The viability of your wireless network connections can fluctuate wildly based on the usage patterns of other networks whose range intrudes on your coverage area.
When faced with potential speed and connectivity issues you need to employ a WiFi analyzer to determine the exact cause of the problems. We recommend NetSpot, though there are other options available. It is an indispensable tool for diagnosing problems with a WiFi network.
Using the analyzer application, you can survey your location for WiFi signals. The information you can gather includes the channels and frequencies that these networks are using to broadcast their radio waves. This allows you to make informed decisions regarding the proper channel for your network to use. A simple change of channels can have a dramatic impact on the viability of your WiFi network.
The Future of WiFi Frequencies
WiFi standards will continue to evolve to achieve the fastest and most reliable use of the current 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. In an effort to relieve some of the competition for network bandwidth and channels that currently exists, the FCC is considering opening up what is known as the 6 GHz and for unlicensed WiFi use. They plan on introducing four subbands named U-NII-5 through U-NII-8. Two of the bands will incorporate a new scheme designed to limit interference called AFC (Automated Frequency Control).
Industry experts are skeptical concerning the readiness of WiFi manufacturers to implement AFC. If the FCC maintains their timetable, expect to see 6 GHz WiFi starting in late 2019 or early 2020. The promise of more bands and channels should make it easier to optimize your network and avoid background interference.
Innovation into improving WiFi will certainly continue as wireless networks evolve and society’s demands for connectivity increase. We may be using a totally different and as yet unknown technology to communicate in ten years. For the time being, you will be subject to the power and limitations afforded by 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi networks. Hopefully, you now know a little more about them than you did before.
Author - Kate L. of NetSpot - https://www.netspotapp.com/