Will 2024 be Wi-Fi 7’s breakthrough year?

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The story of Wi-Fi 7 is a long and tangled tale, full of promise, confusion, and a fair dose of uneasiness. However, one thing is certain: Wi-Fi 7 provides far speeder performance than current Wi-Fi 6E technology. Taking advantage of the wide-open spaces of the 6GHz band that 6E pioneered, Wi-Fi 7 offers several innovative ways to accelerate performance, slice through interference, and reduce network latency.

Key benefits of Wi-Fi 7

Wi-Fi 7 is theoretically five times faster than Wi-Fi 6E, yet real-world performance will likely be far less than the published 46 Gbps, says David Lessin, a director at technology research and advisory firm ISG. Nonetheless, Wi-Fi 7 performs significantly better than Wi-Fi 6E.

Increased speed is just one Wi-Fi 7 benefit. The new standard also doubles channel size, creating a substantive improvement in how data is organized into data streams, Lessin says. There’s also a capability for devices to use multiple Wi-Fi frequencies and channels simultaneously. In theory, this should lead to better network performance.

While Wi-Fi 7 provides a variety of improvements in areas such as security, throughput, and latency, the most anticipated enhancement is multi-link operation (MLO), which offers the ability to access multiple bands (at 2.4, 5 and 6 GHz), and spread data transmission across multiple bands simultaneously, says Gino Dion, head of innovation solutions, network infrastructure, fixed networks, at Nokia. He notes that besides boosting throughput, MLO improves latency to near-Ethernet performance levels, as well as offering a significant Increase in reliability and traffic differentiation.

With Wi-Fi 7, channel width expands from 160MHz to 320MHz, effectively doubling throughput, Dion observes. “For short distances, the modulation goes from 1024QAM to 4096QAM, which can improve throughput an additional 20 percent.” Additionally, flexible channel utilization (FCU) enables wider channel use, even in areas experiencing high levels of interference. “FCU leverages features like Multi Resource Units (MRU)—providing a more flexible and efficient use the available spectrum—and puncturing, the ability to transmit a ‘punctured’ portion of the spectrum channel, where some channels are used by legacy users.”

The overall result, Dion says, is maximum data rates of:

  • 23Gbps on the 6 GHz (compared to 9.6Gbps with Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E)
  • 36Gbps with MLO, a 3.75-times increase compared to Wi-Fi 6.

On the downside, devices and software will need to be Wi-Fi 7-capable in order for adopters to fully benefit from the new technology. “Budget and lifecycle refresh timing should be considered, as they will impact results, likely extending the time to realize the full benefits of a Wi-Fi 7 network” Lessin explains.

Wi-Fi 7 is a new technology, so there will be a device price premium in the beginning, leading to more expensive routers and client devices, Dion predicts. “Initially, as with every new Wi-Fi generation, there will be a limited number of products certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.”

Who should make the switch to Wi-Fi 7?

At this stage, enterprise users stand to benefit the most from the new technology. A few prime examples are stadiums, airports, hotels, and factories, says Xiang Li, industry solution engineer at Keysight Technologies, an electronics test and measurement equipment technology provider. “Improvements in the OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiple access) operation will allow larger client numbers per access point,” he notes.

A rapidly growing number of enterprises are deploying large numbers of IoT devices driven by the Internet and, most recently, AI. These units can help enterprises improve efficiency and productivity, but they need reliable and efficient backbone networks to support this massive number of devices. Wi-Fi 6 doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle these devices, and 5G private networks consume more energy and are expensive to deploy and operate, Li observes. “Wi-Fi 7 will check all the boxes for many enterprise users.”

With Wi-Fi 7, organizations still relying on legacy Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 technologies will likely receive a large network performance benefit, translating to improvements in end-user experience and satisfaction, Lessin says. The number of client devices that are capable of fully utilizing the advantages of Wi-Fi 7 also needs to be considered. “In short, budget, and where a business is in their IT refresh cycle matters,” he explains. Enterprises with dense user populations will almost always benefit from Wi-Fi 7, but a business cases is still required. “Moving without a concrete business plan will create turbulence,” Lessin notes.

End-users looking at a big boost in Wi-Fi speed and low latency will benefit most from transitioning to Wi-Fi 7, Dion says. Furthermore, residential users drawn to ubiquitous in-home connectivity will also likely want to upgrade to Wi-Fi 7.

Hardware support

While initial Wi-Fi 7 APs and clients have already been released into the market, there’s still no strong indication of how successful the initial hardware rollout will be. “Wi-Fi 7 will certainly put a lot of pressure on router, access point, and device makers,” Li says. “It will probably also raise the bar for small startups who want to break into the Wi-Fi space.”

The number of new features in Wi-Fi 7 will require serious hardware upgrades before anything else can happen, Li says. “If you don’t have the RF component to support the bandwidth, you can’t say you support Wi-Fi 7,” he explains. “We will definitely see router and access point makers working very hard to support Wi-Fi 7.”

At the moment, most available Wi-Fi 7 infrastructure hardware is being targeted at the consumer market, focusing on traditional early adopters, particularly gamers. Leading vendors include Asus, eero (Amazon), NetGear, and TP Link. All of these vendors offer viable, yet relatively expensive, options for the SMB and early adopter segment, Lessin says.

On the commercial front, Lessin believes that major enterprise hardware vendors, such as Cisco, HPE, Juniper, Aruba, and Fortinet, are approaching the Wi-Fi 7 market cautiously, yet are bound to become major market players. “I’m also going to watch Sophos Wireless and Ubiquiti UniFi, as they have had several compelling Wi-Fi 6/6E options.”

Software support

The Wi-Fi Alliance only approved its certification standard in January 2024, so software products and services remain scarce, Lessin says. “With AI integration top-of-mind for network thought leaders, we will have to wait to see what the likes of Juniper Mist, Extreme Networks, NetOps, Fortinet, and others will bring to the table.”

Li predicts that network software technology will need to keep pace with a massive and ever more complex assortment of devices and applications. “Just like we’ve seen with 5G network management, we will need intelligent ways to manage all the traffic,” Li (he) notes. “Similar to a 5G network on the application layer, we will see more solutions that can optimize the usage of Wi-Fi resources.”

On the security front, Wi-Fi 7 offers a significant boost in network protection. Wi-Fi 7 continues the move toward WPA3 and away from earlier security methods that have been shown to contain serious vulnerabilities, Li says. “We will see security software solutions that are targeting Wi-Fi 7 networks or devices in the market as well.”

Is Wi-Fi 7 fit for business?

While much of the Wi-Fi 7 buzz has focused on home users, the technology also brings significant benefits to a variety of enterprises, ranging from small- and medium-sized businesses to healthcare, academic, and industrial organizations. “With Wi-Fi 7, you will have best-in-class security, coverage, and performance,” Dion predicts. “Industrial environments, like warehouses, factories, and even external facilities, such as ports and airports; can all benefit greatly in delivering critical services at an unprecedented level of quality.”

As with the introduction of any new technology, enterprise adopters will need to create a supportable business case incorporating a demonstrable need and ROI before transitioning to Wi-Fi 7. “Facilities with dense user populations should consider if this technology is right for them at this time,” Lessin says. For businesses including manufacturing, transportation, and shipping, other technologies to consider are 5G, A5G Advanced Release 19, and private wireless networks, which may be a more compelling and effective option.

Looking ahead

A Wi-Fi 7E version will probably be released within a couple of years, Lessin says. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi 8 is already in the planning stages, and it will attempt to reach a parity with mobile cellular solutions, including 5G Advanced and 6G.

Yet it’s probably too soon to begin talking talk about Wi-Fi 8, since the Wi-Fi Alliance just released its Wi-Fi 7 certification program. “In the short term, we’re hoping to see more progress on hardware support for Wi-Fi 7,” Li says. Over the long term, there will be increasing software and application optimization. “When some of the fundamentals are in place, we should see more smart IoT applications for enterprise users and customers,” he predicts. “These will probably have integrated AI and ML capabilities, so I, Robot might be closer than you think.”

Networking, Wi-Fi

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