Theoretical vs. Actual Network Speeds
Like most kinds of computer networks, Wi-Fi supports varying levels of performance depending on which technology standards it supports. Each Wi-Fi standard is rated according to its maximum theoretical network bandwidth:
- 802.11b offered up to 11 megabits per second (Mbps)
- 802.11a and 802.11g offer up to 54 Mbps
- 802.11n offers up to 300 Mbps
Factors Limiting Wi-Fi Connection SpeedsThe disparity between theoretical and practical Wi-Fi performance comes from network protocol overhead, radio interference, physical obstructions on the line of sight between devices, and decreasing signal strength with distance. In addition, as more devices communicate on the network simultaneously, its performance will also decrease.
A Wi-Fi network connection operates at the highest possible speed that both devices (endpoints) can support. An 802.11g laptop connected to an 802.11n router, for example, will network at the lower speeds of 'g'.
On home networks, the performance of an Internet connection is often the limiting factor in end-to-end network speed. Even though most residential networks support sharing files within the home at speeds of 20 Mbps or more, Wi-Fi clients will still connect to the Internet at the usually lower speeds supported by Internet providers.
Wi-Fi performance continues to be improved with future generations of the technology. Speeds upwards of 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) are expected with next-generation 802.11ac Wi-Fi.