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Physical Layer

The three physical layers originally defined in 802.11 included two spread-spectrum radio techniques and a diffuse infrared specification.

The radio-based standards operate within the 2.4 GHz ISM band. These frequency bands are recognized by international regulatory agencies radio operations. As such, 802.11-based products do not require user licensing or special training.

Spread-spectrum techniques, in addition to satisfying regulatory requirements, increase reliability, boost throughput, and allow many unrelated products to share the spectrum without explicit cooperation and with minimal interference.

The original 802.11 wireless standard defines data rates of 1 Mbps and 2 Mbps via radio waves using frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) or direct sequence spread spectrum (DSSS). It is important to note that FHSS and DSSS are fundamentally different signaling mechanisms and will not interoperate with one another.

Using the frequency hopping technique, the 2.4 GHz band is divided into 75 1-MHz subchannels. The sender and receiver agree on a hopping pattern, and data is sent over a sequence of the subchannels. Each conversation within the 802.11 network occurs over a different hopping pattern, and the patterns are designed to minimize the chance of two senders using the same subchannel simultaneously.

FHSS techniques allow for a relatively simple radio design, but are limited to speeds of no higher than 2 Mbps. This limitation is driven primarily by FCC (Federal Communications Commission USA) regulations that restrict subchannel bandwidth to 1 MHz. These regulations force FHSS systems to spread their usage across the entire 2.4 GHz band, meaning they must hop often, which leads to a high amount of hopping overhead.

In contrast, the direct sequence signaling technique divides the 2.4 GHz band into 14 22-MHz channels. Adjacent channels overlap one another partially, with three of the 14 being completely non-overlapping. Data is sent across one of these 22 MHz channels without hopping to other channels.

To compensate for noise on a given channel, a technique called “chipping” is used. Each bit of user data is converted into a series of redundant bit patterns called “chips.” The inherent redundancy of each chip combined with spreading the signal across the 22 MHz channel provides for a form of error checking and correction; even if part of the signal is damaged, it can still be recovered in many cases, minimizing the need for retransmissions.

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