Wi-Fi 7 Signals the Industry’s New Priority: Stability
Multi-link operations and the 6-GHz band promise more reliability than before
Wi-Fi is one of the most aggravating success stories. Despite how ubiquitous the technology has become in our lives, it still gives reasons to grumble: The service is spotty or slow, for example, or the network keeps cutting out. Wi-Fi’s reliability has an image problem.
When Wi-Fi 7 arrives this year, it will bring with it a new focus on improving its 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. 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.
This article is part of our special report Top Tech 2024.
“The question that we posed ourselves was, ‘What do we do now?’” says Carlos Cordeiro, an Intel fellow and the company’s chief technology officer of wireless connectivity. “What Wi-Fi really needed to do at that point was become more reliable…. I think it’s the time that we should be looking more at latency and becoming more deterministic.”
The renewed focus on reliability is motivated by emerging applications. 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 really want to make sure that your [data] packet gets across the first time that you send it,” says Cordeiro. Beyond industrial automation and robotics, augmented and virtual reality technologies as well as gaming stand to benefit from faster, more reliable wireless signals.
Multi-link operations will make Wi-Fi more reliable
The key to a future Wi-Fi you can depend on is something called multi-link operations (MLO). “It is the marquee feature of Wi-Fi 7,” says Kevin Robinson, president and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance. MLO comes in two flavors. The first—and simpler—of the two is a version that allows Wi-Fi devices to spread a stream of data across multiple channels in a single frequency band. The technique makes the collective Wi-Fi signal more resilient to interference at a specific frequency.
Where MLO really makes Wi-Fi 7 stand apart from previous generations, however, is a version that allows devices to spread a data stream across multiple frequency bands. For context, Wi-Fi utilizes three bands—2.5 gigahertz, 5 GHz, and as of 2020, 6 GHz.
Whether MLO spreads signals across multiple channels in the same frequency band or channels across two or three bands, the goals are the same: dependability and reduced latency. Devices will be able to split up a stream of data and send portions across different channels at the same time—which cuts down on the overall transmission time—or beam copies of the data across diverse channels, in case one channel is noisy or otherwise impaired.
“[Multi-link operations are] the marquee feature of Wi-Fi 7.” —Kevin Robinson, president and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance
MLO is hardly the only feature new to Wi-Fi 7, even if industry experts agree it’s the most notable. Wi-Fi 7 will also see channel size increase from 160 megahertz to a new maximum of 320 MHz. Bigger channels means more throughput capacity, which means more data in the same amount of time. That said, 320-MHz channels won’t be universally available. Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum—and in some regions, contiguous 320-MHz chunks of unlicensed spectrum don’t exist because of other spectrum allocations.
In cases where full channels aren’t possible, Wi-Fi 7 includes another feature, called puncturing. “In the past, let’s say you’re looking for 320 MHz somewhere, but right within, there’s a 20-MHz interferer. You would need to look at going to either side of that,” says Andy Davidson, senior director of technology planning at Qualcomm. Before Wi-Fi 7, you’d functionally be stuck with about a 160-MHz channel either above or below that interference. “With Wi-Fi 7, you can just notch out the interference…. You’ve still got an effective 300-MHz channel,” says Davidson.
When do I get my Wi-Fi 7?
The closest thing that a Wi-Fi generation has to a “release date” is when the Wi-Fi Alliance releases its certification, which is a process for ensuring that wireless products meet the industry’s agreed-upon standards for security, interoperability, and device protocols. Wi-Fi Certified 7—slated for the first quarter of 2024—is the culmination of years of collaborative work by the wireless industry to determine what features should be included in the new generation. After agreement on features, there is months of validation work on early implementations of those features to ensure they all work, separately and together, according to Robinson. Early Wi-Fi 7 implementations are tested at the organization’s R&D lab in Santa Clara, Calif. Finally, the new features are locked in and the Wi-Fi Alliance releases its certification program.
Separate from the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification process, the IEEE will ratify a new version of the 802.11 standard. The two are not entirely equivalent—not everything specified in the standard makes it into the Wi-Fi Alliance certification. Regardless, the new version—802.11be—should be ratified later this year as well, after the Wi-Fi 7 certification release.
When Wi-Fi Certified 7 is released, manufacturers will bring their devices to one of 20 authorized test labs around the world to confirm that their devices conform to the specs laid out by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Most importantly, certified devices are guaranteed to work together properly.
Wi-Fi 7 routers, chips, and other devices are already available, ahead of Wi-Fi Certified 7’s release. This is standard practice: Companies release their Wi-Fi 7–compatible products and undergo the official certification when it becomes available. Qualcomm’s Davidson explains that it’s common for companies to work from earlier IEEE draft standards once it becomes clear what features and requirements the next wireless generation will include.
Meanwhile, work is already underway on what will become Wi-Fi 8. “Think of it as a pipeline,” says Robinson. “While the Wi-Fi Alliance is putting the finishing touches on commercializing a new generation of Wi-Fi, standards organizations like the IEEE are already looking forward to what is going to go into the next generation.”
This article appears in the January 2024 print issue as “Wi-Fi’s Big Bet on Reliability.”
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