CSMA/CA (Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Avoidance) is a protocol for carrier transmission in 802.11 networks. Unlike CSMA/CD (Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Detect) which deals with transmissions after a collision has occurred, CSMA/CA acts to prevent collisions before they happen.
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In CSMA/CA, as soon as a node receives a packet that is to be sent, it checks to be sure the channel is clear (no other node is transmitting at the time). If the channel is clear, then the packet is sent. If the channel is not clear, the node waits for a randomly chosen period of time, and then checks again to see if the channel is clear. This period of time is called the backoff factor, and is counted down by a backoff counter. If the channel is clear when the backoff counter reaches zero, the node transmits the packet. If the channel is not clear when the backoff counter reaches zero, the backoff factor is set again, and the process is repeated.