This question has been rolling into my inbox quite frequently over the past weeks and I have written the answer to the question below.
Please note that this is not a complete guide to the entirety of 802.11 as such, it is more of a basic outline that any intermediate to advanced computer user should be able to understand.
Most people with a lack of knowledge related to computing will hear the term “802.11” and immediately think “Wi-Fi”. 802.11 is not necessarily “Wi-Fi” but it is more a term for the standard of such. In short 802.11 is actually more seldom referred to as the 802.11 standard. Meaning that a wireless device should comply with the 802.11 standard in order to be compatible with the majority of wireless devices located around the world. In addition you may like to know that the 802.11 standard in itself defines a link layer wireless protocol, which is managed by a committee known as “IEEE” (a.k.a The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). As an additional note “Wi-Fi” and “802.11” are similar in principal but are not the same thing.
The history of the 802.11 standard is a long one, which I will condense for you.
The first 802.11 standard was formally approved in the year 1997. This standard would transmit a maximum of 2Mbps (Mega bits per second).
The next standard that was approved and released was in the year of 1999, it was the “802.11b” standard, which was what you could call an add-on to the original “802.11” standard. The “802.11b” standard allowed what seemed then to be a mind-blowing data transfer rate of 11Mbps (11 Mega bits per second).
After “802.11b” the “802.11a” protocol was approved and released in 1999, which was oddly enough the same year as the release of its predecessor “802.11b”. This new protocol allowed transmission across the 5Ghz radio band, which in turn reduced interference and crowding across the cliché 2.4Ghz band that still to this day seems to run everything with an antenna. This new protocol allowed a much higher speed due to different transmission techniques and a less congested band, which was a whopping 54Mbps (54 Mega bits per second).
Later on in 2003 the IEEE approved and released another new 802.11 protocol standard, which was named 802.11g, which provided the same data transfer rate of 54Mbps (54 Mega bits per second) as the “802.11a”, although it returned to the 2.4Ghz band that was used in most protocol standards prior to the “802.11a” standard. This return to the 2.4Ghz band while offering the same data transfer rate attracted corporations and the general public to adopt the idea and even today it remains one of the most commonly used 802.11 protocols in use.
Shortly after the release of the “802.11g” protocol standard, a new protocol was approved and released. This was the “802.11n” protocol standard, which allowed a colossal 100Mbps (100 Mega bits per second) data transfer rate. Although it is still not as widely known and used as the “802.11g” protocol standard.
That is the basic outline of 802.11. I hope that this has answered your question sufficiently.