WiFi: The Data Link Layer
The data link layer within 802.11 consists of two sublayers: Logical Link Control (LLC) and Media Access Control (MAC).
802.11 uses the same 802.2 LLC and 48-bit addressing as other 802 LANs, allowing for very simple bridging from wireless to IEEE wired networks, but the MAC is unique to WLANs.
The 802.11 MAC is very similar in concept to 802.3, in that it is designed to support multiple users on a shared medium by having the sender sense the medium before accessing it.
For 802.3 Ethernet LANs, the Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detection (CSMA/CD) protocol regulates how Ethernet stations establish access to the wire and how they detect and handle collisions that occur when two or more devices try to simultaneously communicate over the LAN. In an 802.11 WLAN, collision detection is not possible due to what is known as the “near/far” problem: to detect a collision, a station must be able to transmit and listen at the same time, but in radio systems the transmission drowns out the ability of the station to “hear” a collision.
To account for this difference, 802.11 uses a slightly modified protocol known as Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Avoidance (CSMA/CA) or the Distributed Coordination Function (DCF). CSMA/CA attempts to avoid collisions by using explicit packet acknowledgment (ACK), which means an ACK packet is sent by the receiving station to confirm that the data packet arrived intact.
CSMA/CA works as follows. A station wishing to transmit senses the air, and, if no activity is detected, the station waits an additional, randomly selected period of time and then transmits if the medium is still free. If the packet is received intact, the receiving station issues an ACK frame that, once successfully received by the sender, completes the process. If the ACK frame is not detected by the sending station, either because the original data packet was not received intact or the ACK was not received intact, a collision is assumed to have occurred and the data packet is transmitted again after waiting another random amount of time.
CSMA/CA thus provides a way of sharing access over the air. This explicit ACK mechanism also handles interference and other radio related problems very effectively. However, it does add some overhead to 802.11 that 802.3 does not have, so that an 802.11 LAN will always have slower performance than an equivalent Ethernet LAN.
Another MAC-layer problem specific to wireless is the “hidden node” issue, in which two stations on opposite sides of an access point can both “hear” activity from an access point, but not from each other, usually due to distance or an obstruction.
To solve this problem, 802.11 specifies an optional Request to Send/Clear to Send (RTS/CTS) protocol at the MAC layer. When this feature is in use, a sending station transmits an RTS and waits for the access point to reply with a CTS. Since all stations in the network can hear the access point, the CTS causes them to delay any intended transmissions, allowing the sending station to transmit and receive a packet acknowledgment without any chance of collision.
Since RTS/CTS adds additional overhead to the network by temporarily reserving the medium, it is typically used only on the largest-sized packets, for which retransmission would be expensive from a bandwidth standpoint.
Finally, the 802.11 MAC layer provides for two other robustness features: CRC checksum and packet fragmentation. Each packet has a CRC checksum calculated and attached to ensure that the data was not corrupted in transit. This is different from Ethernet, where higher-level protocols such as TCP handle error checking. Packet fragmentation allows large packets to be broken into smaller units when sent over the air, which is useful in very congested environments or when interference is a factor, since larger packets have a better chance of being corrupted. This technique reduces the need for retransmission in many cases and thus improves overall wireless network performance. The MAC layer is responsible for reassembling fragments received, rendering the process transparent to higher level protocols.
Support for Time-Bounded Data
Time-bounded data such as voice and video is supported in the 802.11 MAC specification through the Point Coordination Function (PCF). As opposed to the DCF, where control is distributed to all stations, in PCF mode a single access point controls access to the media. If a BSS is set up with PCF enabled, time is spliced between the system being in PCF mode and in DCF (CSMA/CA) mode. During the periods when the system is in PCF mode, the access point will poll each station for data, and after a given time move on to the next station. No station is allowed to transmit unless it is polled, and stations receive data from the access point only when they are polled. Since PCF gives every station a turn to transmit in a predetermined fashion, a maximum latency is guaranteed. A downside to PCF is that it is not particularly scalable, in that a single point needs to have control of media access and must poll all stations, which can be ineffective in large networks.
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