Sometimes, 802.11b Just Is Enough

I've mentioned in the past that 802.11b has become a thing of the past for most WiFi networks, but recently I happened upon one of these old boys and it worked great. The episode served as a reminder that sometimes you can use old technology well beyond its expiration date if you put it in the right place.

You all know the limitations: 802.11b tops out at 11 Mbps. 802.11b stations sometimes lack support for WPA2 (or even WPA). I've never seen an 802.11b device support Block Acks. And many of the don't even support QoS (which is an underrated way to protect yourself against WEP or PSK cracking, btw). But you also know the benefits: they're cheap as heck!

There's another reason besides cheapness that 802.11b remains an enticing choice: Sometimes you don't need the extra speed. In my recent excursion I was using WiFi to access a wireless ISP. Initially I was surprised to see 11 Mbps traffic in my Wireshark (I was too lazy to boot into Windows; what's new?), but then I realized that it made sense. If the backhaul from the ISP's tower was under 18 Mbps, then 802.11b was the right choice. 18 Mbps may move like engine sludge to us city folks, but in the town I was working the top broadband speeds were probably under 2 Mbps.

I will stop short of advocating that new deployments use 802.11b. I mean, the stuff isn't even sold retail anymore. But a lot of folks do have to choose between 802.11a/g and 802.11n nowadays. 802.11n is great with the extra range that it gives you, but the extra speed sometimes goes to waste. If you're just delivering Internet service to guests or allowing conference room users to have meetings over MIMO, you'd probably be fine with the older, cheaper stuff. If there's 802.11b equipment providing professional-grade service for ISPs in 2010, that means there's a decent chance that 802.11a/g will still be a viable technology three or four years down the road.


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