When accessing the Internet on a portable device or wirelessly on a desktop computer, wireless speed becomes a second factor in affecting your connection speed. For many years, Wi-Fi networks were unlikely to cause any speed problems above and beyond those caused by your main Internet connection. Today that may not always be the case.

Wi-Fi Speeds

Wi-Fi equipment uses a range of standards whose names begin with "802.11" and end with a letter, hence marketing terms such as "wireless B." Wireless B, introduced in 2000, has a maximum speed of 11Mbps, while wireless G, introduced in 2003 had a maximum speed of 54Mbps. Wireless N, introduced in 2009, has a maximum speed of 600Mbps.

Effect

For most of the time that wireless B and then wireless G were the latest Wi-Fi technologies, broadband connection speeds did not exceed the speeds available on Wi-Fi. For example, a November 2009 report from the WebHostingBuzz site said the average download speed of a broadband customer in the U.S. was less than 10Mbps. It was thus highly unlikely you would have a faster broadband connection speed than the speed available on your Wi-Fi network, meaning there was no danger that the data transmission would be slowed down by the Wi-Fi. Some companies are now offering faster broadband connections; if you're running wireless-G rather than wireless-N equipment, your Wi-Fi could be slowing down your Internet speed.

Limitation

The maximum speed for a particular version of Wi-Fi is subject to two limitations. Firstly, the speed includes the transmission of network-related information, such as packet headers and the information used to encrypt data. This leaves less room for the Internet data, cutting the actual speed at which you can transmit material. Secondly, the maximum speed assumes perfect conditions, with no interference or signal degradation, such as that caused by thick walls or ceilings. In reality, the speeds you can reasonably expect to achieve are around half that of the stated maximums. This increases the possibility that your Wi-Fi network may slow down Internet data. For example, if you have a wireless-G network and can realistically only get 27Mbps, it may prevent you getting the full benefit of a 30Mbps broadband service -- assuming, of course, that the broadband is running at the full advertised speed!

Uploads and Pings

Download speed is not the only factor. Whereas a Wi-Fi network's speeds are the same in any direction, most broadband services have much faster download capabilities than they do upload capabilities, reflecting the way most home users need to access the service. This makes it extremely unlikely that using Wi-Fi will limit the speed at which you can upload data to the Internet. One possible problem is that using Wi-Fi could give you a slower ping time than is available through your broadband itself. Ping measures the speed at which a device responds to a communication and begins transmitting data, rather than the speed of the data transmission itself. For ordinary Internet use this isn't usually important, but a slow ping time can cause problems with online gaming or videoconferencing; switching to a wired connection could improve performance.