The 802.11 family consists of a series of half-duplex over-the-air modulation techniques that use the same basic protocol. The 802.11 protocol family employ carrier-sense multiple access with collision avoidance whereby equipment listens to a channel for other users (including non 802.11 users) before transmitting each packet.
802.11-1997 was the first wireless networking standard in the family, but 802.11b was the first widely accepted one, followed by 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. Other standards in the family (c–f, h, j) are service amendments that are used to extend the current scope of the existing standard, which may also include corrections to a previous specification.
802.11b and 802.11g use the 2.4 GHz ISM band, operating in the United States under Part 15 of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Rules and Regulations; 802.11n can also use that band. Because of this choice of frequency band, 802.11b/g/n equipment may occasionally suffer interference in the 2.4 GHz band from microwave ovens, cordless telephones, and Bluetooth devices etc. 802.11b and 802.11g control their interference and susceptibility to interference by using direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) and orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) signaling methods, respectively.
802.11a uses the 5 GHz U-NII band, which, for much of the world, offers at least 23 non-overlapping 20 MHz-wide channels rather than the 2.4 GHz ISM frequency band offering only three non-overlapping 20 MHz-wide channels, where other adjacent channels overlap—see list of WLAN channels. Better or worse performance with higher or lower frequencies (channels) may be realized, depending on the environment. 802.11n can use either the 2.4 or 5 GHz band; 802.11ac uses only the 5 GHz band.
The segment of the radio frequency spectrum used by 802.11 varies between countries. In the US, 802.11a and 802.11g devices may be operated without a license, as allowed in Part 15 of the FCC Rules and Regulations. Frequencies used by channels one through six of 802.11b and 802.11g fall within the 2.4 GHz amateur radio band. Licensed amateur radio operators may operate 802.11b/g devices under Part 97 of the FCC Rules and Regulations, allowing increased power output but not commercial content or encryption.
In 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance began using a consumer-friendly generation numbering scheme for the publicly used 802.11 protocols. Wi-Fi generations 1–6 refer to the 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac, and 802.11ax protocols, in that order.