WiFi Data Rates and Modulation for 802.11n
Assuming equal operating parameters to an 802.11g network achieving 54 megabits per second (on a single 20 MHz channel with one antenna), an 802.11n network can achieve 72 megabits per second (on a single 20 MHz channel with one antenna and 400 ns guard interval); 802.11n’s speed may go up to 150 megabits per second if there aren’t other Bluetooth, microwave or WiFi emissions in the neighbourhood by using two 20 MHz channels in 40 MHz mode. If more antennas are used, then 802.11n can go up to 288 megabits per second in 20 MHz mode with four antennas, or 600 megabits per second in 40 MHz mode with four antennas and 400 ns guard interval. Because the 2.4 GHz band is seriously congested in most urban areas, 802.11n networks usually have more success in increasing data rate by utilizing more antennas in 20 MHz mode rather than by operating in the 40 MHz mode, as the 40 MHz mode requires a relatively free radio spectrum which is only available in rural areas away from cities. Thus, network engineers installing an 802.11n network should strive to select routers and wireless clients with the most antennas possible (one, two, three or four as specified by the 802.11n standard) and try to make sure that the network’s bandwidth will be satisfactory even on the 20 MHz mode.
Data rates up to 600 Mbit/s are achieved only with the maximum of four spatial streams using one 40 MHz-wide channel. Various modulation schemes and coding rates are defined by the standard and are represented by a Modulation and Coding Scheme (MCS) index value. The table below shows the relationships between the variables that allow for the maximum data rate. GI (Guard Interval) : Timing between symbols.
|Data rate (Mbit/s)|
|20 MHz channel||40 MHz channel|
|800 ns GI||400 ns GI||800 ns GI||400 ns GI|
PHY level data rate improvements do not increase user level throughput beyond a point because of 802.11 protocol overheads, like the contention process, interframe spacing, PHY level headers (Preamble + PLCP) and acknowledgment frames. The main media access control (MAC) feature that provides a performance improvement is aggregation. Two types of aggregation are defined:
Aggregation of MAC service data units (MSDUs) at the top of the MAC (referred to as MSDU aggregation or A-MSDU)
Aggregation of MAC protocol data units (MPDUs) at the bottom of the MAC (referred to as MPDU aggregation or A-MPDU)
Frame aggregation is a process of packing multiple MSDUs or MPDUs together to reduce the overheads and average them over multiple frames, thereby increasing the user level data rate. A-MPDU aggregation requires the use of block acknowledgement or BlockAck, which was introduced in 802.11e and has been optimized in 802.11n.
When 802.11g was released to share the band with existing 802.11b devices, it provided ways of ensuring coexistence between legacy and successor devices. 802.11n extends the coexistence management to protect its transmissions from legacy devices, which include 802.11g, 802.11b and 802.11a. There are MAC and PHY level protection mechanisms as listed below:
PHY level protection: Mixed Mode Format protection (also known as L-SIG TXOP Protection): In mixed mode, each 802.11n transmission is always embedded in an 802.11a or 802.11g transmission. For 20 MHz transmissions, this embedding takes care of the protection with 802.11a and 802.11g. However, 802.11b devices still need CTS protection.
PHY level protection: Transmissions using a 40 MHz channel in the presence of 802.11a or 802.11g clients require using CTS protection on both 20 MHz halves of the 40 MHz channel, to prevent interference with legacy devices.
MAC level protection: An RTS/CTS frame exchange or CTS frame transmission at legacy rates can be used to protect subsequent 11n transmission.
Even with protection, large discrepancies can exist between the throughput an 802.11n device can achieve in a greenfield network, compared to a mixed-mode network, when legacy devices are present. This is an extension of the 802.11b/802.11g coexistence problem.
To achieve maximum output, a pure 802.11n 5 GHz network is recommended. The 5 GHz band has substantial capacity due to many non-overlapping radio channels and less radio interference as compared to the 2.4 GHz band. An 802.11n-only network may be impractical for many users because they need to support legacy equipment that still is 802.11b/g only. In a mixed-mode system, an optimal solution would be to use a dual-radio access point and place the 802.11b/g traffic on the 2.4 GHz radio and the 802.11n traffic on the 5 GHz radio. This setup assumes that all the 802.11n clients are 5 GHz capable, which isn’t a requirement of the standard. Quite a few wifi-capable devices only support the 2.4 GHz and there is no practical way to upgrade them to support 5 GHz. A technique called “band steering” is used by some enterprise-grade APs to send 802.11n clients to the 5 GHz band, leaving the 2.4 GHz band for legacy clients. Band steering works by responding only to 5 GHz association requests and not the 2.4 GHz requests from dual-band clients.
40 MHz in 2.4 GHz
The 2.4 GHz ISM band is fairly congested. With 802.11n, there is the option to double the bandwidth per channel to 40 MHz which results in slightly more than double the data rate. However, when in 2.4 GHz, enabling this option takes up to 82% of the unlicensed band, which in many areas may prove to be infeasible.
The specification calls for requiring one primary 20 MHz channel as well as a secondary adjacent channel spaced ±20 MHz away. The primary channel is used for communications with clients incapable of 40 MHz mode. When in 40 MHz mode, the center frequency is actually the mean of the primary and secondary channels.
|20 MHz||40 MHz above||40 MHz below|
|Blocks||2nd ch.||Center||Blocks||2nd ch.||Center||Blocks|
Local regulations may restrict certain channels from operation. For example, Channels 12 and 13 are normally unavailable for use as either a primary or secondary channel in North America. For further information, see List of WLAN channels.
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