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This paper studies the performance of contention based medium access control (MAC) protocols. In particular, a simple and accurate technique for estimating the throughput of the IEEE 802.11 DCF protocol is developed. The technique is based on a rigorous analysis of the Markov chain that corresponds to the time evolution of the back-off processes at the contending nodes. An extension of the technique is presented to handle the case where service differentiation is provided with the use of heterogeneous protocol parameters, as, for example, in IEEE 802.11e EDCA protocol. Our results provide new insights into the operation of such protocols. The techniques developed in the paper are applicable to a wide variety of contention based MAC protocols.