What is Wi-Fi 7?
Wi-Fi 7 will introduce significantly improved capacity, speed and reliability compared to its predecessors, making it better suited to fulfilling the needs of consumer and enterprise customers. We explore the nature of these improvements, their impact on overall performance, and how this will affect new applications and use cases.
Wi-Fi 7 is the latest generation of Wi-Fi networks
Wi-Fi 7 is the highly anticipated new generation of Wi-Fi networks that is expected to be commercially available towards the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. A successor to Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi 7 promises greater speeds, improved capacity, and enhanced efficiency. In this article, we will delve into its key features and improvements, and explore its potential impact on enterprise use cases and applications.
Background- what came before?
To provide some background, let’s start by looking at Wi-Fi 7’s predecessors. Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, was released in 2019 and introduced substantial speed improvements over its predecessor, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). Theoretically, Wi-Fi 6 offers a maximum data rate of up to 9.6 Gbps enabling seamless streaming of 4K and 8K videos, faster data transfers, and better overall performance in high-density environments. It’s important to note that maximum speeds are only achievable under ideal conditions and depend on various factors such as network congestion, device capabilities, and signal strength, which we will discuss later in this article.
Building upon the foundation of Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E was released in 2020 and takes advantage of the 6 GHz frequency band, in addition to the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands already used by Wi-Fi 6. The addition of an extra frequency band allows for more devices to be simultaneously connected, reducing congestion and improving overall performance. Wi-Fi 6E’s maximum theoretical data rate isn’t much higher than its predecessor at 10 Gbps, but the additional spectrum improves its reliability.
Enter Wi-Fi 7, also known as 802.11be, which will introduce some key technological advancements resulting in some impressive performance improvements. These will ultimately enable new use cases and applications (as well as improving existing ones), which are summarised in figure 1.
Figure 1: Expected Wi-Fi 7 improvements that will enable new enterprise applications/ use cases*
The Wi-Fi Alliance is a global non-profit organization that develops and maintains the Wi-Fi standards which define the technical specifications for each Wi-Fi generation. As Wi-Fi 7 standards are still being finalised, device manufacturers have already started developing devices based on early iterations of the standard, giving us a glimpse of what to expect. Notable technological advancements include:
- OFDMA operations that use MRUs: Introduced in Wi-Fi 6, Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) allows multiple users to share the same frequency band simultaneously by dividing it into multiple smaller subcarriers called resource units (RUs). Each RU carries a portion of the total data to be transmitted. In Wi-Fi 7, the same user can use multiple RUs (MRUs) for increased transmission efficiency.
- 16 MU-MIMO streams: Multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology (MU-MIMO) allows a Wi-Fi router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, instead of sequentially transmitting data to each device one by one through the use of multiple antennas at both the router and the devices. Wi-Fi 7 doubles the number of MU-MIMO streams from 8 in Wi-Fi 6/6E to 16.
- Multi-link operations (MLO): MLO allow a device to connect to a Wi-Fi access point via multiple frequency bands simultaneously e.g. 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz. Previous generations of Wi-Fi only support a single link e.g. 2.4 GHz or 5GHz.
- Doubling the channel width in the 6GHz band to 320 MHz: Increasing the channel width means that the available frequency spectrum for a device is expanded to accommodate larger chunks of data transmission.
How Wi-Fi 7 will support next-generation enterprise use cases
As shown in figure 1, Wi-Fi 7 has obvious benefits for consumer applications such as higher quality video streaming or supporting metaverse applications. However, enterprise use cases and applications also represent a significant opportunity. Figure 2 highlights three technical benefits and explains how they can enable next-generation enterprise use cases.
Figure 2: Examples of how Wi-Fi 7’s technical benefits enable new enterprise use cases
Will Wi-Fi 7 be the go-to enterprise connectivity solution?
Wi-Fi 7, despite its advancements, comes with certain restrictions that need to be considered when answering this question, for example:
- Range– signal strength diminishes over distance, requiring access points to be placed closer together for optimal coverage. A space may be too large to viably achieve complete coverage with Wi-Fi e.g. in a large factory or outdoors.
- Interference– other electronic devices and physical barriers can also affect the Wi-Fi 7 performance, potentially leading to slower speeds and connection disruptions.
- Device density– While Wi-Fi 7 offers improved capacity compared to previous generations, there is still a limit to the number of devices it can handle effectively.
- Device compatibility– older devices such as IIoT may not support Wi-Fi 7 or require firmware updates for compatibility.
Ultimately, the appropriateness of Wi-Fi 7 as an enterprise connectivity solution will vary by enterprise, use case and environment and enterprises will likely continue to use multiple forms of connectivity where appropriate. For example, a manufacturer may use Wi-Fi 7 to support AR/VR for employee training, ethernet to connect legacy machines and indoor private 5G to support IIoT in a large factory for predictive maintenance and condition-based monitoring and control. You can find a more in-depth comparison in our article titled ‘Private 5G vs Wi-Fi vs Private LTE’ and report titled ‘Enterprise Wi-Fi 6/7 is here to stay: 5G is not enough’.
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