Way back when Wi-Fi first came out, there were two versions that you could chose from: 802.11a and 802.11b. From a consumer perspective, there wasn’t much difference between the two. Devices based on 802.11b were generally less expensive and more readily available than those based on 802.11a, so the b specification quickly became the consumer standard. 802.11b operates in the 2.4GHz spectrum. These days, it’s getting pretty crowded, and to help address the digital noise that comes with it, 5GHz WiFi is making a comeback.
802.11a was a standard in 1999 which promised to bring network connections to devices delivered over the air instead of through copper cables. It was built around the 5GHz spectrum, but failed to gain much traction in the consumer market.
Being the “first” Wi-Fi protocol, it faced a steep learning curve and deployment problems which delayed the deployment of 802.11a networks. Also, at the time, components that operated on 5GHz were generally more expensive and harder to come by than 2.4GHz components.
When 802.11a was going through its initial “growing pains” the 802.11b specification was being worked on. It offered basically the same features as 802.11a, but used less expensive and more readily available components.
Due to these factors, 802.11b saw significant adoption amongst home and small-office users, whereas 802.11a only saw any level of “success” in enterprise network environments.
Popularity of Wi-Fi began to grow, and the standards that backed it continued to improve.
By 2003, a new standard had been ratified, though many devices were using the 802.11g draft specification prior to the date that it was made “official”. This version of the Wi-Fi standard brought some of 802.11a’s “stability” features and the inexpensive componentry of 802.11b, and the protocols were improved upon. All together the changes were able to increase speeds up to 54Mbps.
Thanks to backwards-compatibility with devices that used 802.11b, consumers were thrilled! When this article was orginally written, 802.11g was still one of the more popular versions of Wi-Fi available. Today it’s still a viable option, but is giving way to 802.11n and 802.11ac, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Unfortunately, 802.11g still uses the 2.4GHz spectrum, which, as you might have suspected, is getting pretty crowded since all those Wi-Fi devices operate on the same frequency.
Bluetooth, Microwaves, & Wireless Peripherals (2.4GHz)
Almost everyone has a microwave in their house. Some of them emit some of the radiation used to warm up your pizza outside of the unit. No, it’s not supposed to do that, but some do, especially as they get older and components start to break down. In addition to being harmful to your health, their “spurious emissions” cause bursts of noise around the 2.4GHz spectrum that can severely interfere with your wireless signal. If you find that you’re in this situation, you might want to replace your microwave oven!
Bluetooth used to be limited to headsets and other special-use equipment, but as its feature-set increased, devices using Bluetooth increased too — and not just in number, but in the bandwidth they use and the amount of time they’re turned on. Bluetooth speakers and docks are a good example of this, though wearables are quickly becoming more commonplace as well.
Wireless keyboards, mice, trackpads, and trackballs can use Bluetooth to connect. Even those that use their own proprietary wireless hardware are typically still using the 2.4GHz spectrum.
802.11n (2.4GHz or 5GHz)
When 802.11n was introduced in 2009 it brought with it the ability to communicate at speeds up to 600Mbps. What’s more, 802.11n also included the ability to work in either the 2.4GHz or 5Ghz spectra. Like the other standards before it, 802.11n was backwards compatible with its predecessors. Unfortunately, since most devices already on the market were already using 2.4GHz, most 802.11n wireless access points stuck to 2.4GHz as the primary operating frequency, and some devices didn’t even include the hardware to use 5Ghz at all.
Some let you pick between 2.4GHz and 5GHz operation (but usually not both), but since most people still had some 2.4GHz devices they kept their networks on 2.4GHz rather than making the switch across the board.
802.11ac (2.4 and 5GHz)
802.11ac was ratified in January 2014, but devices based on the draft specification were available for months prior.
This standard brings the maximum data rates up to 1Gbps (almost double that of 802.11n). In most 802.11ac wireless access points, both 2.4GHz and 5GHz hardware is included, though most segregate the traffic from each onto its own network.
Advantages of 5GHz
Finally users can take advantage of the reduced noise available in the 5GHz spectrum. This generally provides faster data rates, fewer disconnects, and a more enjoyable experience. (It may even help you run faster and jump higher, but that study is still pending.)
Bluetooth and other wireless peripherals aren’t going to bother you in the 5GHz spectrum so there’s less interference. Microwaves don’t operate up there (not even newer ones), so that source of noise is eliminated, too.
There are many more reasons why 802.11ac is better than others, but this article is about switching to the 5GHz spectrum, rather than about 802.11ac specifically. With a compatible router or WAP, your 802.11n or 802.11ac smartphone or tablet should work much better.
With a stronger the signal and faster the throughput, less power is required to get your signal above the noise floor, which should result in better battery life in addition to better network performance.
5GHz WiFi Conclusions
Not all of your devices are going to have 5GHz compatibility built-in, they will still work every bit as well as they did before on 2.4GHz, but should work even better once you offload traffic from that network onto your 5GHz network.
There are some potential disadvantages to 5GHz though. If two signals are transmitted using the same power and equivalent antennas, the signal with the higher the frequency will travel a shorter distance over 5GHz than it will over 2.4GHz. Since the signals may not travel as far over 5GHz, you may not have as much interference from neighbors as you would have on 2.4GHz. Neither will your neighbors’ (which could very well be a major advantage to all of you).
Other environmental factors also play into whether 5GHz will be better for your circumstances. A country home with relatively few devices and neighbors who live 1/4 mile away may benefit from 2.4GHz over 5GHz (or vice versa). A suburban home with neighbors within arm’s length of each other, all competing in the 2.4GHz spectrum may benefit from 5GHz over 2.4GHz.
Just as physical obstacles can prevent you from passing from one room to another (walls, for example), obstacles can block, reduce, or reflect signals, too. The frequency of the signal (in this case 2.4GHz versus 5GHz) comes into play, as does the the composition of the walls. Brick, drywall, plaster, glass, and steel all have different properties, and signals on one frequency may travel through them better than signals on another frequency. It all depends on the environment in which your network is deployed.
All in all, I’d highly recommend that you upgrade your router or WAP to 802.11ac and set up both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, then move as much of your wireless traffic to the 5GHz side as possible. You’ll have less noise, less interference, better speeds, a more stable connection, and possibly even better battery life. What more could you want?
Update: We’ve updated the article to help address some of the points our readers have brought up, as well as to clarify the theories at work.
Many have opined that using 5GHz rather than 2.4GHz is nothing more than a manifestation of a “placebo effect”. While this could be the case in certain circumstances and situations there are many reasons why (from a technical perspective) 5GHz WiFi may perform better than 2.4GHz WiFi; similarly, there are reasons why 2.4GHz WiFi may work better than 5GHz WiFi. The differences are very much specific to the environment in which each network is being used