May 01 2024

Wi-Fi 7: What Higher Education Needs to Know

The latest generation of wireless connectivity promises to help universities accommodate growing bandwidth demands. Should colleges already be considering an upgrade?

In 2024, Wi-Fi celebrates its 25th birthday with a big announcement: the introduction of Wi-Fi 7. This new generation of Wi-Fi builds upon the existing features of Wi-Fi 6E but includes new components that improve efficiency and the user experience.

What Wi-Fi 7 Brings to Higher Education

Hybrid and online courses, robotics and virtual reality, and the sheer volume of users on a college campus all make reliable Wi-Fi critical.

“The more online resources students need to access — whether it’s submitting homework to the learning management system or livestreaming a lecture — the more that 6-gigahertz bandwidth will help deliver a better user experience,” says David Coleman, director of wireless networking at Extreme Networks.

Wi-Fi 7 clears up issues with channel overlap and contention that were discovered in Wi-Fi 6. As such, Wi-Fi 7 can be seen as more of an upgrade to an organization’s existing network rather than as a change to the status quo.

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Two key features of Wi-Fi 7 are multi-link operation and puncturing.

With MLO, “devices can optimize network interactions, conserve energy and reduce latency,” explains Thierry Chau, vice president of market development, networking, intelligent cellular and security solutions at CommScope. “It makes it easy for devices to swiftly select clear channels for data transmission.”

Puncturing provides uninterrupted communication, even in challenging or busy environments. Coleman equates puncturing to an express lane on a highway that allows drivers to bypass accidents or heavy traffic.

MLO enables the ease of switching between channels.

“For example, a client device simultaneously monitors the 5GHz and 6GHz bands. When it needs to transmit data, it selects the band with less congestion and higher availability, significantly improving latency,” explains Coleman.

Wi-Fi 7 also introduces 320 megahertz channels, which Coleman describes as wider highway lanes. With wider channels, each channel can carry more data simultaneously, allowing for faster internet speeds and increased data throughput.

Additional features include 20 percent more data in each signal (accelerating connections and improving data transmission) and increased support for latency-sensitive streams, often related to gaming and video streaming, Coleman says.

All of these features will be useful for increased reliance on the Internet of Things and virtual reality, for example.

Patrick Kennedy headshot
There’s going to be a significant infrastructure requirement to make sure you can support Wi-Fi 7 access points.”

Patrick Kennedy Principal Inside Solution Architect for Networking, CDW Education

Wi-Fi 7 also provides security features, including a mandatory implementation of WPA3 encryption in the 6GHz spectrum. This provides secure roaming for devices while also strengthening security measures.

“Its encryption protocol strengthens security measures against various threats, including offline dictionary attacks and vulnerabilities exploited in previous iterations,” says Chau.

Wi-Fi 7 will prioritize official emergency preparedness communication to ensure that those channels always remain clear and reliable.

“Wi-Fi 7’s faster speeds, improved security and energy efficiency will revolutionize wireless connectivity for end users,” says Chau. “It will present fresh opportunities for enhancing the design and configuration of intelligent buildings.”

Navigating the Road Ahead to Wi-Fi 7

Though Wi-Fi 7 marks an advancement in the tech space, adoption rates won’t be as dramatic as when Wi-Fi 6E entered the scene.

“Wi-Fi 6E is recognized as a landmark in Wi-Fi history for ushering in the era of 6GHz Wi-Fi connectivity,” says Coleman. “Opening up this pristine ‘spectrum superhighway’ significantly expanded the capacity of wireless networks and set the groundwork for future Wi-Fi generations, including Wi-Fi 7 and 8.”

The announcement is just the first step, cautions Rich Cruz, a senior enterprise wireless field solution architect for CDW.

Ratification (or approval) will follow and is anticipated later this year. After that, it’s up to the supply chain, more or less, as to when devices have the necessary hardware to support this new generation.

Cruz advises IT leadership to look at the Wi-Fi Alliance website, a good resource for comparing their existing technology with the advancements being made.

“It’s a wonderful starting point,” says Cruz. “You can understand where the industry is heading and the availability to client devices.”

Patrick Kennedy, principal inside solution architect for networking at CDW Education, suggests evaluating the existing LAN. It’s common for this infrastructure (including cables and access points) to lag behind Wi-Fi updates. If an institution doesn’t have the right supporting infrastructure, they won’t reap the benefits of the latest Wi-Fi generation.

“There’s going to be a significant infrastructure requirement to make sure you can support Wi-Fi 7 access points,” says Kennedy.

Additionally, look at existing switches, which likely will need to be updated to support newer Wi-Fi versions.

“To realize the capabilities of Wi-Fi 7, it’s imperative to deploy cables and access points that can handle such speed and power demands,” warns Chau.

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Advice for Higher Education Institutions Transitioning to Wi-Fi 7

The launch of Wi-Fi 7 is a good time for colleges and universities to re-evaluate their existing Wi-Fi capabilities.

“For those that are still running on Wi-Fi 6 or earlier technology, it’s a good idea to consider upgrading, as the continuing increase of users, applications and devices on higher education campuses will begin to strain network bandwidth; 6GHz Wi-Fi can address this,” says Coleman. “Courses incorporating virtual or augmented reality, robotics and 3D technology will require updated hardware, leading to increased latency and bandwidth demands on the campus network.”

Kennedy also points out how important solid connection and fast speeds are for students, who may rank their college choices based on the quality of Wi-Fi on campus.

“Prospective students will walk around with Wi-Fi analyzer apps and imagine what their experience will be while on campus or in dorms,” he says. “Having visible access points means coverage, and students would prefer to see them.”

While Wi-Fi 7 is backward compatible, institutions should bear in mind that not all students have the financial resources to afford devices that can support the latest generation of W-Fi, so ensuring that their devices can still connect to the network will be critical. For example, with the enhanced security features of Wi-Fi 7, students with older devices won’t be able to successfully connect.

“As far as legacy client devices, they will work — and probably even work a little better — but the client device won’t be able to take advantage of any new features,” explains Chau.

Strong and stable Wi-Fi is embedded into American culture and has become an expectation, especially within higher education. While the latest generation of wireless will be a welcome advancement, the next several years will offer a good buffer period for universities to reassess their existing infrastructure and network and consider upgrading to at least Wi-Fi 6E.

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