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How Fast Is a Wi-Fi Network?

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Brother and sisters using different form of technology
Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Question: How Fast Is a Wi-Fi Network?
Answer: The speed of a Wi-Fi wireless network connection depends on several factors.

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:

The performance of Wi-Fi networks practically never approach these theoretical maximums. 802.11b networks, for example, generally operate no faster than about 50% of theoretical peak, around 5.5 Mbps. Likewise, 802.11a and 802.11g networks generally run no faster than 20 Mbps. And even though 802.11n rates at 300 Mbps compared to wired Fast Ethernet at 100 Mbps, the Ethernet connection can often outperform 802.11n in real world usage.

Factors Limiting Wi-Fi Connection Speeds

The 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 distance between devices. 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.

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