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I am trying to understand the meaning of standards, protocols and working groups. I read that the 802.11 of the IEEE organization is a working group, trying to implement some standards. I think that I have understand that, for example 802.11b is a standard and not a protocol. But what actually is 802.11? Is it a standard which consists of other sub-standards (e.g. 802.11b/n) or is it a protocol?

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  • A network protocol is a set of rules for communication. Devices that follow the same protocols can communicate.
    – Ron Maupin
    Jan 16, 2021 at 21:19
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    Working groups define standards which define protocols.
    – Zac67
    Jan 16, 2021 at 21:48

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The standard family from the IEEE 802.11 working group defines wireless functions for the physical and data link OSI layers. It is amended by task forces consecutively numbered with letters e.g. (IEEE) 802.11n or 802.11ac.

Some of those task forces define new PHY standards (or protocols if you like) like b, g, n, ac, ax. Most often these PHYs are referred to by their task force name. Of course, there are many other standards that don't define any PHY but some other aspect of Wi-fi.

802.11b/n refers to two of those standards, likely referring to some piece of hardware that is compatible to both 802.11b and 802.11n.

Very much the same thing happens at IEEE 802.3 for (wired) Ethernet. Ethernet PHYs are all named though and usually those names are used for reference (e.g. 1000BASE-T instead of 802.3ab).

And of course, there are many other working groups for other aspects. For instance, IEEE 802.1 defines common data-link-layer functionalities and protocols like spanning tree or LACP.

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