4th April 2016
Radio waves are everywhere. Wherever you are, chances are you’re surrounded by them. From TV stations, mobile phones, Bluetooth devices and remote controls; the list goes on. Think of any university and the plethora of devices just one student will bring with them: their laptop, smartphone, tablet, gaming console. Multiply that by the thousands and you’ve got a lot of radio waves traveling at different lengths, moving at different speeds, covering different distances and operating on different frequencies.
The most common of those frequencies is 2.4GHz and is the favour of frequency for a number of devices. Devices such as mobile phones and Wi-Fi routers to wireless keyboards, mice, Bluetooth headsets and cordless phones. The trouble now is that as devices like this see no sign of becoming less popular, the 2.4GHz frequency is becoming crowded. Even devices like the faithful microwave can cause bursts of noise around the 2.4GHz spectrum. Even worse, the older the microwave the higher the likelihood those bursts of noise are. That crowding of the frequency means internet can become slower, data speeds suffer, and even battery life of devices connected to that Wi-Fi network can diminish faster as they work harder to pick up the signal. In fact, the 2.4GHz frequency has become so crowded that Google now offer an Ethernet dongle for its Chromecast streaming stick. Suffering from dropped connections, physically plugging the device into a router is the only viable way around the problem. Put that into perspective for a second; in a time when student satisfaction is atop the priority mountain the last thing any university will want to do is to advise plugging a cable into their device just to use the internet. There is a solution however, and it comes in the form of the 5GHz frequency. If 5GHz is the solution then why aren’t we all using it? And what exactly is the difference between 2.4GHz and 5GHz? You could be forgiven to think this is a new form of technology specifically created in recent years to combat the overcrowding of the 2.4GHz frequency, but you’d be wrong.
Back in a time where we may struggle to remember, when Wi-Fi was first available, you could choose from two versions: 802.11a or 802.11b. Other than being given names that nobody would remember let alone understand, 802.11a (5GHz), promised to bring network connections together over the air, dismissing the need for copper cables. It was built around the 5GHz band, and being the first of its kind there were issues. The learning curve was steep; it was expensive and its deployment was delayed not to mention the parts required in order to physically build it were harder to come by.
It was these teething problems that encouraged the 2.4GHz version to be worked on. Near same features could be offered but less expensive and the resources needed to build it were readily available. These simple factors meant that 802.11b quickly became adopted by homes, student accommodation and offices alike. 802.11a however, only saw only a small level of success in enterprise network environments. As the popularity of Wi-Fi grew so did the standards that surrounded it.
Fast forward to 2003 and a new standard of 2.4GHz had been officially approved. Its name had just as much ring to it as its predecessor, aptly named 802.11g. This version of Wi-Fi essentially brought together some of the features of 802.11a and 802.11b and gave users speeds of up to 54Mbps. Devices like notebooks that used 802.11b were able to use 802.11g thanks to backwards compatibility and so users were delighted. However, as we know, 2.4GHz devices became more popular and so the spectrum became somewhat crowded. Solution? Provide an option as to which frequency to use.
We’re now in 2009 and with it comes the introduction of 802.11n. This network offered the ability to utilise speeds of up to 600Mbps. On top of that no longer were users confined to the 2.4GHz frequency exclusively. For the first time the ability to work in either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz spectrum was available. The ability was available, however as most of the devices on the market were already using the 2.4GHz frequency, most of the access points stuck to it. Some would allow the option to choose one or the other, and as most people still had 2.4GHz devices they kept it on that network rather than making the switch.
Come January 2014 and the 802.11ac specification had been ratified. As a standard it brought the maximum rate of data up to 1Gbps, nearly double that of 802.11n. More devices were capable of using the 5GHz spectrum and with access points containing hardware for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz it meant that users could now choose their preference.
Now, in 2016, users are finally able to take advantage of the 5GHz frequency. Operating at a much higher frequency the spectrum has significantly less noise interfering with it. All those Bluetooth and wireless devices aren’t going to cause any issues and items like microwaves don’t operate as high up thus eliminating another source of interference.
Smart phones, tablets and laptops will work much better on a 5GHz network too. Devices will enjoy significantly stronger connection seeing far fewer disconnections and overall a more enjoyable experience. Battery life of these devices will improve too thanks to a stronger signal. The improved signal means they won’t struggle to find and connect to the Wi-Fi.
5GHz also supports a far higher maximum data rate too. Some of the older 2.4GHz network products could match the speed of 5GHz by utilising a pair of radios instead of just the one. However, with the latest technology 5GHz comes up trumps when it comes to devices that consume the largest amount of network traffic. Devices capable of video streaming or games consoles for example will run considerably faster over 5GHz.
The only drawback of using the 5GHz frequency lies within its signal strength. With the same power output of a 2.4GHz network it will travel only half the distance. Despite this, additional hardware is probably not required and all that is needed are some additional access points to ensure a stronger signal. In doing this networks are also being future proofed too.
Increasing numbers of devices are becoming compatible with 5GHz; the latest iPad, iPhone and Windows Surface are just a few examples, and as manufacturers recognise its many benefits eventually we’ll move away from the 2.4GHz frequency altogether. By moving as much of your wireless traffic as possible to 5GHz you’ll enjoy a stronger connection, faster data rates, less interference and improved battery life. Other than having no lectures pre – lunchtime, what more could students want?