Here Comes Wi-Fi 7: Is It Overkill?
To the average user, Wi-Fi must appear to be evolving at such a rapid pace that’s difficult to digest. After all, the Wi-Fi Alliance certified Wi-Fi 6E (otherwise known as Wi-Fi 6 Extended) in early 2021. Wi-Fi 6E refers to the capability for Wi-Fi radios to exploit the 6GHz band for unlicensed spectrum. But while there are indisputable benefits to Wi-Fi receiving additional spectrum for the first time in two decades, Qualcomm is working very hard on the next-generation wireless technology in the not too distant future, which promises higher data transmission rates and, perhaps more importantly, lower latency performance.
Of course, the pandemic has brought into focus the critical role that Wi-Fi plays in our work and entertainment lives. It’s hard to imagine what life during the lockdowns over the past two years might have been like without the ability to simultaneously work, play and lead more productive lives, frequently with other family members doing the same thing. While 5G gets a lot of the headlines, the truth of the matter is that excellent Wi-Fi can impact our daily lives in ways that we sometimes take for granted.
What is Wi-Fi 7?
Earlier today, Qualcomm officially announced its support for Wi-Fi 7. Right off the bat, the company’s messaging is highly focused on Wi-Fi 7 being able to “elevate” the wireless experience via a combination of “extreme” wireless speeds and “consistently” low latency. The technical attributes of Wi-Fi 7 suggest that Qualcomm’s enthusiasm is not misplaced.
In comparison to Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 7 (or 802.11be) is all about spectrum. This new technology will utilize multi-band/multi-channel aggregation that delivers higher spectrum, better power efficiency, lower interference, higher capacity density and even better cost-efficiency. The result will be the targeted ability to support up to 30Gbps throughput, approximately three times faster than Wi-Fi 6.
In that context, Wi-Fi 7 might be positioned as Wi-Fi 6 on steroids. Wi-Fi 7 devices and routers will generate the best possible performance in essentially all traffic scenarios by leveraging all Wi-Fi spectrum bands. While many users across the United States still don’t have access to gigabit speeds because of their geographic location, that situation is likely to change over the next few years as more ISPs begin offering gigabit (and faster) speed plans. Noisy environments are often the bane of good Wi-Fi performance, but 802.11be can provide robust connectivity even in crowded surroundings. Moreover, congested networks often impact low latency, and Wi-Fi 7 is said to lower latency levels by as much as two times in comparison to Wi-Fi 6. Qualcomm’s announcement blog on Wi-Fi 7 does a nice job articulating why the company believes 802.11be is such a game-changer.
How does Wi-Fi 7 accomplish this? Its performance enhancements are achieved via support of 320MHz transmissions, which is double the 160MHz of Wi-Fi 6, the utilization of higher modulation orders, optional support of 4096 QAM (which is 4X over Wi-Fi 6) and the allocation of multiple resource units. This last point deserves special attention as it drives more efficient spectrum utilization, a key feature that will enhance AR/VR and IoT applications. Viewed through this prism, it’s not difficult to see how Wi-Fi 7 will have a mammoth impact for use cases like online gaming (especially when wagering is involved), video streaming and smart home devices (and related services). Wi-Fi 7’s impact on video streaming is particularly relevant as it is expected to become the dominant type of traffic within the next 24 months.
A few closing thoughts
Qualcomm has been at the forefront of developing new Wi-Fi technologies for two decades. The company has a long history of not only bringing new paradigm-breaking connectivity technologies to market but the company also has the heft, size and influence to move the market. In other words, when Qualcomm gets behind a new wireless capability, the overall market reacts.
While new wireless capabilities tend to have a “numeric soup” effect with users who can often react with glazed eyes, it doesn’t dilute the potential that Wi-Fi 7 will have on the future of computing. Assuming that Apple jumps into the AR/VR fray later this year, an entirely new category of new immersive bandwidth-hungry applications will embrace Wi-Fi 7 with open arms. These new Extended Reality (XR) applications will require the best low latency technology to offer a gimmick-free user experience. After all, an incredibly immersive experience can only be produced with technologies that facilitate high quality/refresh video, and those applications will demand premium-speed bandwidth. Said a bit differently, even Wi-Fi 6/6E isn’t going to cut it.
Wi-Fi 7 enabled routers and devices are not expected to appear in the marketplace until later this year or, more probably, early 2023. As Wi-Fi 7 represents such a dramatic improvement in connectivity speeds (among other benefits), the messaging aspect of marketing 802.11be for spec-weary consumers should be relatively straightforward. However, like all new wireless technologies, many optimal performance benefits can’t be realized unless multi-gigabit speeds are utilized. Furthermore, when the first Wi-Fi 7 routers appear on the market, it will likely be another two years (or even longer) until Wi-Fi 7 gains critical mass device support.
Nevertheless, Qualcomm should be commended for getting in the forefront of this essential new wireless technology. Wi-Fi will clear the runway for AR/VR, the metaverse, no compromise online gaming, and other bandwidth-devouring applications that ultimately will begin to take hold of the market and become more mainstream. With all apologies to Yogi Berra (and Qualcomm), it’s déjà vu all over again — — and that’s a good thing.
Mark Vena is the CEO and Principal Analyst at SmartTech Research based in Silicon Valley. As a technology industry veteran for over 25 years, Mark covers many consumer tech topics, including PCs, smartphones, smart home, connected health, security, PC and console gaming, and streaming entertainment solutions. Mark has held senior marketing and business leadership positions at Compaq, Dell, Alienware, Synaptics, Sling Media and Neato Robotics. Mark has appeared on CNBC, NBC News, ABC News, Business Today, The Discovery Channel and other media outlets. Mark’s analysis and commentary have appeared on Forbes.com and other well-known business news and research sites. His comments about the consumer tech space have repeatedly appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, TechNewsWorld and other news publications. Mark has also provided contributions to venerable Parks Associates, the leading research firm in the consumer technology space.
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