Wi-Fi Woes: Should You Use 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz?
Although just about everyone nowadays connects to Wi-Fi networks regularly, few of us have an understanding of how the technology works. As with most wireless systems, Wi-Fi relies on radio signals. However, these radio signals are set at either of two frequencies – 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz.
Those who have messed around with their Wi-Fi settings may have already seen these frequency values. What’s the difference between the two and why is it necessary to have two frequency bands? In this article, we’re looking at the relevance of both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, their respective pros and cons, and which one you should use.
Wi-Fi standards and ISM frequencies
To understand why there are two specific frequency bands used by Wi-Fi, one must understand the concept of the ISM radio bands and what exactly Wi-Fi is.
Wi-Fi is simply a protocol for wireless networks established back in the 1970s based on the IEEE 802.11 family of standards. It uses radio frequency signals to transfer data from devices and across networks. The “Wi-Fi” brand itself is a trademark of the US-based Wi-Fi alliance.
However, just about all wireless technologies also use radio signals. These include Bluetooth speakers, NFC devices, cordless telephones, and baby monitors. Cellphone signals, radio communication, and the signals for the AM radio also operate on the radio frequency band.
To minimize interference, the ITU Radio Regulations established the ISM frequency bands. This refers to a broad frequency band reserved for use for industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) purposes. The ISM is an internationally accepted standard that designates values for unlicensed radio frequency use.
Why 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz in particular?
Knowing that Wi-Fi works within the ISM frequency band still does not answer our question on why the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies specifically are used for Wi-Fi. To answer that question, we’ll have to look at the events that transpired back when Wi-Fi routers started to become common.
A key piece of knowledge here is the fact that we live in a world where the 2.4 GHz frequency band is used everywhere. Just about all wireless devices in our homes use 2.4 GHz. The origin for this can be traced back to the humble microwave – or to be more technically specific, microwave ovens.
Microwave ovens were around by the 1940s, way before Wi-Fi and most wireless technologies. To heat food, microwaves operated at a frequency of 2.45 GHz. To prevent interference, this frequency was expanded to a band of 2.4 GHz to 2.4835 GHz. This provided an easy avenue for assigning frequencies to wireless devices, mostly because it was a frequency band that was already in use.
Thus, the 2.4 GHz frequency band was born. It was ideal for use by Wi-Fi because of its wide channel selection, range, and penetration. With better firmware, Wi-Fi routers were able to more optimally minimize interference over the years. However, overcrowding of the 2.4 GHz frequency inevitably still happened, making it necessary to expand Wi-Fi frequency to another option – the 5 GHz frequency.
The difference between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands
The choice of using 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz was not arbitrary. Almost all Wi-Fi routers used today can operate in either frequency, each option providing unique advantages but also some limitations. What should you consider when choosing the settings for your Wi-Fi network?
Pros and cons of 2.4 GHz
The primary benefit of using Wi-Fi at 2.4 GHz is its wider range. Signals at this frequency can travel farther with less attenuation, making it ideal for large homes or offices. If you have devices that are located far from the Wi-Fi router, then these should ideally connect using 2.4 GHz.
Wi-Fi signals at 2.4 GHz also penetrate solid objects better. This is a huge advantage if the signals need to travel through walls and floors to reach a device. Again, this is another argument for sticking with 2.4 GHz for Wi-Fi networks in large spaces with lots of obstacles, such as office floors.
Can get congested
The major limitation of the 2.4 GHz frequency is the fact that so many devices use it. Not only does this make devices set at 2.4 GHz more prone to interference, but it also means that the frequency band is more likely to get crowded. This can cripple data transmission rates and make Wi-Fi connects frustratingly slow.
Pros and cons of 5 GHz
The speed advantage of the 5GHz frequency is two-fold. Since it operates at a higher frequency, data transfer rates at 5 GHz are inherently faster. There’s also the fact that this frequency band is less congested, as there aren’t as many wireless devices that use it. If your Wi-Fi connection speed is lower than expected, then try switching over to 5 GHz.
The lack of ability of 5 GHz signals to penetrate well through solid objects is the major limitation to its use. If there are several walls between a router and a device, then there’s a very good chance that 5 GHz signals will drop out. For this reason, using 5 GHz is recommended only for single rooms or small homes.
Even in the absence of solid obstacles, 5 GHz signals will still attenuate faster as they travel compared to 2.4 GHz signals. This is less of a problem nowadays considering that you can just easily use a Wi-Fi repeater or extender. However, 5 GHz Wi-Fi is still best used with devices that are physically located close to the router.
How to set up your Wi-Fi network
As we can see, both Wi-Fi frequency options have advantages. If you’re working in a small space, then the speed boost 5 GHz provides is something you might take advantage of. However, some wireless devices (such as wireless printers and other smart devices). can only connect using a 2.4 GHz signal. This emphasizes the importance of having a network that uses both frequency bands.
Fortunately, virtually all Wi-Fi modems nowadays have dual-band capabilities. You can set the modem to separate the two frequency bands with each of them having a unique SSID. This can be a necessary measure if you have devices that only use the 2.4 GHz frequency. If wireless device compatibility is not an issue, then it would be more convenient to set the modem to use the two frequency bands simultaneously. By allowing devices to connect to both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands using the same SSID, they are free to switch from one to the other depending on which signal is more stable.
If a dual-band router is not enough, you can consider using one with tri-band capabilities. This type of router produces one 2.4 GHz signal and two 5 GHz signals. This could be useful if you use the 5 GHz signal heavily, as it prevents the frequency band from getting congested. As you would expect, such modems are typically more expensive.
With most of us relying on Wi-Fi connections, it seems like a good idea to develop some understanding of how the technology works and how we can optimize it for our use. One of the most basic but more useful concepts to learn is that of frequency bands – particularly, why Wi-Fi works on two different frequencies.
As we now know, there are inherent pros and cons to both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. These aren’t just random numbers. One frequency can be more suitable than the other depending on your setting and the type of devices connected to your network. Hopefully, this encourages you to get into your router settings and check how your connection behaves at different settings.