Wireless Lan (WLAN)


Comparing a WLAN to a LAN
Wireless LANs share a similar origin with Ethernet LANs. The IEEE has adopted the 802 LAN/MAN portfolio of computer network architecture standards. The two dominant 802 working groups are 802.3 Ethernet and 802.11 wireless LAN. However, there are important differences between the two.
WLANs use radio frequencies (RF) instead of cables at the physical layer and MAC sub-layer of the data link layer. In comparison to cable, RF has the following characteristics:
RF does not have boundaries, such as the limits of a wire in a sheath. The lack of such a boundary allows data frames traveling over the RF media to be available to anyone that can receive the RF signal.
RF is unprotected from outside signals, whereas cable is in an insulating sheath. Radios operating independently in the same geographic area but using the same or a similar RF can interfere with each other.
RF transmission is subject to the same challenges inherent in any wave-based technology, such as consumer radio. For example, as you get further away from the source, you may hear stations playing over each other or hear static in the transmission. Eventually you may lose the signal all together. Wired LANs have cables that are of an appropriate length to maintain signal strength.
RF bands are regulated differently in various countries. The use of WLANs is subject to additional regulations and sets of standards that are not applied to wired LANs.
WLANs connect clients to the network through a wireless access point (AP) instead of an Ethernet switch.
WLANs connect mobile devices that are often battery powered, as opposed to plugged-in LAN devices. Wireless network interface cards (NICs) tend to reduce the battery life of a mobile device.
WLANs support hosts that contend for access on the RF media (frequency bands). 802.11 prescribes collision-avoidance instead of collision-detection for media access to proactively avoid collisions within the media.
WLANs use a different frame format than wired Ethernet LANs. WLANs require additional information in the Layer 2 header of the frame.
WLANs raise more privacy issues because radio frequencies can reach outside the facility.
Introducing Wireless LANs
802.11 wireless LANs extend the 802.3 Ethernet LAN infrastructures to provide additional connectivity options. However, additional components and protocols are used to complete wireless connections.
In an 802.3 Ethernet LAN, each client has a cable that connects the client NIC to a switch. The switch is the point where the client gains access to the network.
Wireless LAN Standards
802.11 wireless LAN is an IEEE standard that defines how radio frequency (RF) in the unlicensed industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) frequency bands is used for the physical layer and the MAC sub-layer of wireless links.
When 802.11 was first released, it prescribed 1 - 2 Mb/s data rates in the 2.4 GHz band. At that time, wired LANs were operating at 10 Mb/s so the new wireless technology was not enthusiastically adopted. Since then, wireless LAN standards have continuously improved with the release of IEEE 802.11a, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, and draft 802.11n.
Typically, the choice of which WLAN standard to use is based on data rates. For instance, 802.11a and g can support up to 54 Mb/s, while 802.11b supports up to a maximum of 11 Mb/s, making 802.11b the "slow" standard, and 802.11 a and g the preferred ones. A fourth WLAN draft, 802.11n, exceeds the currently available data rates. The IEEE 802.11n should be ratified by September 2008. The figure compares the ratified IEEE 802.11a, b, and g standards.
The data rates of different wireless LAN standards, are affected by something called a modulation technique. The two modulation techniques that you will reference in this course are Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS) and Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM). You do not need to know how these techniques work for this course, but you should be aware that when a standard uses OFDM, it will have faster data rates. Also, DSSS is simpler than OFDM, so it is less expensive to implement.
802.11a
The IEEE 802.11a adopted the OFDM modulation technique and uses the 5 GHz band.
802.11a devices operating in the 5 GHz band are less likely to experience interference than devices that operate in the 2.4 GHz band because there are fewer consumer devices that use the 5 GHz band. Also, higher frequencies allow for the use of smaller antennas.
There are some important disadvantages to using the 5 GHz band. The first is that higher frequency radio waves are more easily absorbed by obstacles such as walls, making 802.11a susceptible to poor performance due to obstructions. The second is that this higher frequency band has slightly poorer range than either 802.11b or g. Also, some countries, including Russia, do not permit the use of the 5 GHz band, which may continue to curtail its deployment.
802.11b and 802.11g
802.11b specified data rates of 1, 2, 5.5, and 11 Mb/s in the 2.4 GHz ISM band using DSSS. 802.11g achieves higher data rates in that band by using the OFDM modulation technique. IEEE 802.11g also specifies the use of DSSS for backward compatibility with IEEE 802.11b systems. DSSS data rates of 1, 2, 5.5, and 11 Mb/s are supported, as are OFDM data rates of 6, 9, 12, 18, 24, 48, and 54 Mb/s.
There are advantages to using the 2.4 GHz band. Devices in the 2.4 GHz band will have better range than those in the 5GHz band. Also, transmissions in this band are not as easily obstructed as 802.11a.
There is one important disadvantage to using the 2.4 GHz band. Many consumer devices also use the 2.4 GHz band and cause 802.11b and g devices to be prone to interference.
802.11n
The IEEE 802.11n draft standard is intended to improve WLAN data rates and range without requiring additional power or RF band allocation. 802.11n uses multiple radios and antennae at endpoints, each broadcasting on the same frequency to establish multiple streams. The multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) technology splits a high data-rate stream into multiple lower rate streams and broadcasts them simultaneously over the available radios and antennae. This allows for a theoretical maximum data rate of 248 Mb/s using two streams.
The standard is expected to be ratified by September 2008.
Important: RF bands are allocated by the International Telecommunications Union-Radio communication sector (ITU-R). The ITU-R designates the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz frequency bands as unlicensed for ISM communities. Although the ISM bands are globally unlicensed, they are still subject to local regulations. The use of these bands is administered by the FCC in the United States and by the ETSI in Europe. These issues will impact your selection of wireless components in a wireless implementation.

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