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Discussions about Wi-Fi 7 development and deployment are already percolating, but most enterprises are still thinking about Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.
IEEE hasn't ratified or certified the 802.11be standard, also known as Wi-Fi 7, but manufacturers have been implementing pre-certified Wi-Fi 7 chipsets in devices since 2022. Although IEEE expects to approve the new standard in May 2024, interest in Wi-Fi upgrades varies among industry experts and enterprises.
The industry has quickly moved from one Wi-Fi standard to the next in the last few years. With all these recent Wi-Fi developments, will enterprises adopt the newest Wi-Fi standard or stick with what they have?
Wi-Fi adoption cycles among enterprises
According to Dell'Oro Group, just over 10% of wireless LAN units shipped in the third quarter of 2023 were Wi-Fi 6E devices. While some vendors saw revenue from Wi-Fi 7 devices, Dell'Oro said Wi-Fi 7 enterprise sales won't account for a significant percentage of revenue until 2024. Meanwhile, research from the "WBA Annual Industry Report 2024," published in November 2023, found that 41% of 196 respondents planned to deploy Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E as their next wireless investment.
The biggest driver for Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E adoption has been enterprise digitalization initiatives, according to Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA). These initiatives support advances in cloud computing, AI and remote work, among other areas.
"Companies who want to be competitive need to digitalize and bring connectivity to these processes and collect more data to make better decisions," Rodrigues said. As a result, he said access point manufacturers are seeing increased demand as Wi-Fi momentum swings forward.
According to the WBA report, Wi-Fi helps support digitalization among many enterprise market segments, including the following:
- Hospitality. Guests expect excellent Wi-Fi quality and speeds at each hotel location.
- Stadiums and conference venues. These high-capacity areas support thousands of people uploading large files.
- Retail. Shops want to improve shopping experiences for in-person and online purchases.
- Aviation. These areas are congested and use multiple types of connectivity, such as Wi-Fi and cellular.
- Ground transportation. Mass transit needs to provide uninterrupted connectivity with minimal disruptions.
- Industrial and manufacturing. These segments require quality of service and traffic prioritization.
- Education. Schools want to enable dynamic learning experiences and distance learning.
- Healthcare. Patients want improved experiences, and staff want increased productivity.
But, when it comes to Wi-Fi 7 adoption, Rodrigues said enterprises will likely fall into three groups. The first group follows the latest technological advances, such as automotive and construction companies, and quickly upgrades to the latest standard. The second -- and largest -- group follows a regular three-, five- or six-year upgrade cycle. These companies update their Wi-Fi network when they need to, Rodrigues said.
"A big stadium can't change every time there's a new standard because that's a huge investment," Rodrigues said.
The final group doesn't care about the latest technology and uses whichever Wi-Fi standard it needs for specific use cases, he said. For example, a company might use Wi-Fi 3 or Wi-Fi 4 for simple IoT sensors.
Mixed interest in Wi-Fi 7
Many wireless experts are frustrated with the rapid pace of Wi-Fi development when existing standards have unresolved issues, as noted during a Mobility Field Day roundtable discussion in November 2023.
"We haven't achieved the promises of Wi-Fi 6, yet we're looking at Wi-Fi 7," said Keith Parsons, managing director at Wireless LAN Professionals Conference.
For example, Wi-Fi 6 touts the use of orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA), which subdivides channels to accommodate high-density environments. But Parsons said most customers turn off the OFDMA feature on their client devices because it doesn't work correctly.
So, why is the industry moving to Wi-Fi 7 so quickly when it hasn't fixed existing issues?
In addition to using 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, Wi-Fi 7 opens more channels of the 6 GHz band. Theoretically, this capability should improve performance and capacity. According to the WBA report, 42% of respondents said they considered 6 GHz availability as the most important feature of both Wi-Fi 6E, which supports partial use of 6 GHz, and Wi-Fi 7.
"It's hard to get energized about going from 6E to 7 based on just [6 GHz], but that's really the only thing to me to get excited about," said Lee Badman, network architect and wireless technical lead at Syracuse University, during the roundtable discussion.
But Wi-Fi 7 will likely face the same obstacles as its Wi-Fi 6E predecessor. For example, using 6 GHz comes with many prerequisites, such as power considerations, geographic availability, regulations and device refresh cycles, said Darrell DeRosia, principal wireless engineer for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Those caveats extend into Wi-Fi 7's expanded use of the spectrum, possibly dampening widespread adoption in the near future.
While Wi-Fi 7 waits for its killer application and 6 GHz development progresses, most companies might find Wi-Fi 6 meets their business use cases for now, said Shaun Neal, director of customer engagement strategy at Evotek.
"In most environments, the level of density [6 GHz brings] isn't even needed," Neal said. "So, are we creating hardware for the sake of creating hardware to try to move things forward when we're not seeing the business need or the financial justification that customers are looking for?"
Jennifer English is senior site editor for TechTarget's Networking site who joined TechTarget as a writer and editor in 2016.