Guest post: Battle of the air waves -- is 5GHz really worth it?

We know about the satellites cluttering Earth’s orbit and how much we’re screwing up our own planet with the trash we leave behind. Still, if we ever managed to take a picture of what the radio spectrum looks like in your average city, I’m sure peak hour would seem like a walk in the park. There’s no denying it’s a cluttered airspace — from commercial radio to digital TV to common appliances around the home, the spectrum is a mess.

To make matters worse, most everyday appliances are shoved into the same sliver radio waves. Cordless telephones, microwaves, Bluetooth devices and even car alarms commonly work on the 2.4GHz radio band, a 100MHz gap that has to try and fit countless appliances all trying to work at the same time.

Add your standard home wireless network to this cacophony and there’s bound to be problems. Of course, depending on the individual situation, most average users may not even find a problem, but for those who rely on Wi-Fi for heavy media streaming or high-bandwidth Internet, surrounding interference could be a real hassle.

The solution? Turns out that it was here all along. Back when dial-up was still the order of the day, Wi-Fi emerged as an IEEE-ratified standard known as 802.11a. The standard essentially set out the same sort of technology that we’ve all become used to today for wireless networking with one major difference — 802.11a used the relatively traffic-free 5GHz radio spectrum. For reasons unknown, 802.11a was eventually dropped in favour of the ever-popular but somewhat inferior 802.11b and 802.11g standards, which decided to take the highway route with the 2.4GHz radio band.

Nearly a decade later, 5GHz is back. Using draft-802.11n technology, modern Wi-Fi equipment has the ability to harness the 5GHz radio band for easier data transmission. Strictly speaking, 5GHz technology actually works over the 5.8GHz band, the same used by the more expensive cordless phones, but even with slightly interference from these phones the band is much clearer and easier to use.

There are some disadvantages to the 5GHz band, including a shorter overall range and easier degradation by surrounding objects. Still, the advantages are already clear. Given the right equipment, 5GHz has the potential to make home or office wireless networking much easier and much faster. Of course, you’ll need 5GHz-capable equipment on both ends, but with the most new notebooks containing dual band 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi capability, the reason not to switch isn’t as great as it used to be. We’ve already seen the benefits — Linksys’ WRT610N manages amazing throughput speeds, and even D-Link’s DIR-855 Xtreme N Duo Media Router doesn’t fall too far behind. Dual band is the latest and greatest technology, and it’s clear why.

Still, for offices like ours where it’s not unusual to have up to 10 or 15 Wi-Fi networks in the same building — all working at 2.4GHz — 5GHz reduces the possibility of interfering networks and signals. This makes throughput faster, and data rates more