From The Editor | January 3, 2024

Wi-Fi 7: Start Me Up

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By John Oncea, Editor


Soon to be all the rage, Wi-Fi 7 is coming and I ain’t too proud to beg that it happens soon. I won’t get angry or full of doom and gloom waiting for that day because time is on my side. But until certification day comes, I’ll shine a light on this new Wi-Fi standard and come to your emotional rescue.

What promises to offer higher transfer speeds, reduce latency, and better increase network capacity than Wi-Fi 6E? Why, good ol’ 802.11be, better known as Wi-Fi 7.

Building on the foundation laid by Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi 7 isn’t just an upgrade for the sake of an upgrade. “Several new technologies — and some that debuted in Wi-Fi 6E but haven’t entirely yet come into their own — will allow Wi-Fi 7 routers and devices to make full use of an entirely new band of spectrum at 6 gigahertz,” writes the IEEE. “This spectrum — first tapped into with Wi-Fi 6E — adds a third wireless band alongside the more familiar 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands.”

New technologies such as automated frequency coordination, multi-link operations, and 4K QAM will enhance wireless capacity and reduce latency, making Wi-Fi networks more flexible and responsive for users. So, what exactly is Wi-Fi 7 and when can we expect it to be certified? Let’s find out.

Waiting On A Friend

Even though Wi-Fi 7 devices have been trickling into the market for some time, Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 7 isn’t currently available. It will, however, become available sometime before the end of March 2024 according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, and “will facilitate worldwide interoperability and bring advanced Wi-Fi performance to the next era of connected devices.

“Enhancing wireless local-area network (WLAN) performance in the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz bands, Wi-Fi 7 brings cutting-edge capabilities to enable innovations that require high throughput, lower latency, and greater reliability across home, enterprise, and industrial environments, including key applications like augmented, virtual, and extended reality (AR/VR/XR), immersive 3D training, and ultra-high-definition video streaming.”

These “cutting-edge capabilities” will be due to the features Wi-Fi 7 will bring to the table, including 4096 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM). “The higher the value of QAM, the more data that can be packed into a given time slice,” writes Tech Target. “Wi-Fi 7's 4096 QAM is a substantial leap from the modulation found in earlier Wi-Fi standards.”

Wi-Fi 7 brings with it channel widths up to 320 megahertz (MHz) which will result in higher throughput, as well as up to 16 spatial streams. Each stream is essentially a multiplier when combined with channel width and the type of modulation in use. The 16 streams available in Wi-Fi 7 are double what's written into the Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E standard.

Multi-link operation (MLO) is truly new as a feature in Wi-Fi 7 and will enable a client and access point (AP) to use multiple bands simultaneously to pass data. Wi-Fi 7 will build on the resource unit construct originated in Wi-Fi 6 as a method to divide standard channel widths into more efficient, smaller subchannels when a full channel's width isn't required. Wi-Fi 7 adds multiuser capability to this enhancement.

Finally, for outdoor APs that operate in the 6 GHz spectrum, automated frequency coordination (AFC) is required by the Federal Communications Commission to ensure Wi-Fi APs do not interfere with incumbent licensed users of the 6 GHz space. The AP's location is checked against a database of priority 6 GHz users in the local area for frequency coordination.

“It remains to be seen if all the features and capabilities of Wi-Fi 7 will be available in the first product releases,” Tech Target writes. “It’s likely the spatial stream count will be 4x4 or 8x8 on initial Wi-Fi 7 offerings, in sticking with the usual pattern of first-generation Wi-Fi product releases for any new standard.”

Let It Loose

Wi-Fi has, according to IEEE, an image problem regardless of which generation is in use but Wi-Fi 7 has an opportunity to improve that image. “Every Wi-Fi generation brings new features and areas of focus, usually related to throughput — getting more bits from point A to point B,” IEEE writes. “The new features in Wi-Fi 7 will result in a generation of wireless technology that is more focused on reliability and reduced latency, while still finding new ways to continue increasing data rates.”

IEEE suggests emerging applications are prompting the renewed focus on reliability that Wi-Fi 7 is expected to bring, asking readers to imagine a wireless factory robot in a situation where a worker suddenly steps in front of it and the robot needs to make an immediate decision. “It’s not so much about throughput, but you want to make sure that your [data] packet gets across the first time that you send it,” says Carlos Cordeiro, an Intel fellow and the company’s chief technology officer of wireless connectivity. IEEE adds that “beyond industrial automation and robotics, augmented and virtual reality technologies as well as gaming stand to benefit from faster, more reliable wireless signals.”

Companies are already releasing Wi-Fi 7 routers, chips, and other devices, a standard practice as manufacturers get them officially certified once that process becomes available. Qualcomm’s senior director of technology planning, Andy Davidson, says it’s common for companies to start working on earlier IEEE draft standards once they have a clear understanding of the features and requirements of the next wireless generation.

Concerning these early product releases, tom's Hardware writes, “Wi-Fi 7 is a significant upgrade over Wi-Fi 6E in several ways. We’re being graced with higher throughput, lower latency, increased capacity, and faster backhaul speeds (for mesh systems). In addition, many router manufacturers are complementing these Wi-Fi 7 enhancements with hardware-level goodies like faster multicore SoCs and 10 Gbps LAN/WAN ports, among other upgrades.”

They go on to note that upgrading to the latest Wi-Fi 7 technology can be expensive, with the least expensive routers costing $600 and some models going for as much as $1,700 or more. As a result, early adopters of these routers are likely to be wealthy enthusiasts who want the best possible performance and want to be prepared when Wi-Fi 7 devices become widely available.

“Throw in the driver/software requirements necessary to have a fully functional Wi-Fi 7 network and the fact that the Wi-Fi Alliance hasn’t fully ratified the standard means that many things are still in flux,” notes tom’s Hardware. “So, yes, Wi-Fi 7 is here, but we highly suggest that you sit on the sidelines until at least 2024 when the market is expected to start fully embracing the standard.”