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IEEE 802.11 is the standard for wireless local area networks (WLANs) promoted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Wireless technologies in the LAN environment are becoming increasingly important and the IEEE 802.11 is the most mature technology to date. Previous works have pointed out that the standard protocol can be very inefficient and that an appropriate tuning of its congestion control mechanism (i.e., the backoff algorithm) can drive the IEEE 802.11 protocol close to its optimal behavior. To perform this tuning, a station must have exact knowledge of the network contention level; unfortunately, in a real case, a station cannot have exact knowledge of the network contention level (i.e., number of active stations and length of the message transmitted on the channel), but it, at most, can estimate it. We present and evaluate a distributed mechanism for contention control in IEEE 802.11 wireless LANs. Our mechanism, named asymptotically optimal backoff (AOB), dynamically adapts the backoff window size to the current network contention level and guarantees that an IEEE 802.11 WLAN asymptotically achieves its optimal channel utilization. The AOB mechanism measures the network contention level by using two simple estimates: the slot utilization and the average size of transmitted frames. These estimates are simple and can be obtained by exploiting information that is already available in the standard protocol. AOB can be used to extend the standard 802.11 access mechanism without requiring any additional hardware. The performance of the IEEE 802.11 protocol, with and without the AOB mechanism, is investigated through simulation. Simulation results indicate that our mechanism is very effective, robust, and has traffic differentiation potentialities.