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Wi-Fi 7: A True Ethernet Replacement at Long Last
The next generation of local wireless connectivity has already been sketched out... but when will consumers actually need it?
As households and businesses rely more and more on wireless connectivity for a wide range of use cases — even cases that practically dictated wired Ethernet connectivity in the past — discussions about an even faster version of the Wi-Fi protocol than the current 6/6E are already underway. Organizations such as IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance, as well as chipset designers and manufacturers such as Intel and MediaTek, refer to this as Wi-Fi 7, of course, and preliminary specs have already been sketched out.
They are impressive. They also seem too far down the road.
What is interesting to note is that, realistically, Wi-Fi 6/6E is more than enough for the vast majority of today’s use cases if implemented correctly — but, apparently, it hasn’t gained enough market traction yet because of… “optics”. That’s right: the IEEE believes that most consumers and businesses have not upgraded to Wi-Fi 6/6E equipment yet because this version is regarded to be focused on reliability and quality of service rather than performance, i.e. higher transfer data rates.
This is partly true. It’s also true that almost nobody needs wireless data transfer speeds higher than 1200 to 1500 Mbps (real-life numbers down from the Wi-Fi 6 theoretical maximum of 9.6 Gbps), as those exceed most people’s Internet connection speeds anyway.
Amazing data transfer speeds, hard to keep promises
Nevertheless IEEE, the Wi-Fi Alliance, Intel and MediaTek claim that we do need higher data transfer speeds than those, as specific use cases can take advantage of faster wireless connectivity (such as the transfer of large amounts of data between different devices in the same home network or corporate environment). Yet even the companies involved seem to not have settled on a data transfer throughput rate: the Wi-Fi Alliance talks about 30 Gbps, the IEEE about 40 Gbps, while Intel believes that the throughput limit should be set at around 46 Gbps. These are all “paper numbers”, of course, just like the 9.6 Gbps of Wi-Fi 6/6E are.
The only company not talking about specific transfer rates, interestingly, is the only one that has given a live demonstration of Wi-Fi 7 equipment in operation so far: MediaTek. The Taiwanese giant claims that — during testing devices built around not-final controlling hardware — it recorded real-life Wi-Fi 7 speeds that are 2.4 times higher than those of Wi-Fi 6 using the same number of antennas, at the same distance. The company’s general manager for intelligent connectivity, Alan Hsu, even went so far as to claim that Wi-Fi 7 can be the first true replacement for wired Ethernet connectivity, offering comparable performance, high reliability and low latency (as low as 5ms).
While such a claim is sure to raise some eyebrows — actual 10-Gigabit Ethernet equipment can work at almost 9.8 Gbps between computers in the same home or business environments today, after all — a proper Wi-Fi 7 setup could conceivably approach data transfer speeds so high, that the difference between an e.g. 5 Gbps wireless link and a 7 Gbps one would not matter all that much. MediaTek suggests that this level of performance will prove handy in 4K video conferencing, 8K video streaming, AR/VR multiplayer gaming or other applications — even if these can be handled just fine by Wi-Fi 6 today, just not in a multiuser environment where bandwidth has to be shared between many different types of devices.
A solution in search of a problem, then?
While actual data transfer speeds of Wi-Fi 7 would not matter if they prove to be consistently higher than say, 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet, what does matter is the cost of the necessary upgrades in wireless routers and access points supporting it (and actual benefits such an upgrade would bring to most consumers and businesses). That may be just too early to estimate right now: MediaTek expects to start shipping its first Wi-Fi 7 compatible products in late 2023, while the Wi-Fi 7 protocol itself will be certified at some point in 2024 (isn’t it funny how often this “ship now, certify later” thing happens with Wi-Fi equipment?).
What’s more, there’s no indication whatsoever that Apple, Samsung, Dell, Lenovo or any other manufacturer is working on smartphones, tablets or laptops supporting Wi-Fi 7, which would be the real reason why most consumers and professionals would consider upgrading their wireless access equipment anyway.
So… long story short? Wi-Fi 7 might look great on paper but, at this point, it seems to be more of a marketing gimmick than the kind of problem-solving tech the mainstream market would welcome. Most people’s wireless connectivity needs are nowhere near as demanding yet, use cases requiring its performance are practically non-existent and the cost associated with the necessary upgrades is hard to estimate (let alone quantify whether it makes sense to make the investment or not). Things may change during the next two years, sure, but… that dramatically? Not likely.
Let us not hold our breaths, then, for Wi-Fi 7: it will come, eventually, like all evolutionary tech does, and it will be… fine. It’s just a shame that it seems to be one more example of a solution in search of a problem. Don’t we already have enough of those?