Wi-Fi 7 is coming — here’s what to know

If you haven’t invested in a Wi-Fi 6E-compatible router yet, you might never get around to it before the next-generation Wi-Fi 7 standard arrives. There’s already talk it could show up in in iPhones As early as next year. (Macs could get support for the standard not long afterward.

So, what’s so good about this new standard?

The Wi-Fi standard is maintained by the Wi-Fi Allianc and the next iteration will be Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be). This new wireless connectivity breed has multiple advantages to support devices, principally higher peak data rates and much reduced latency. While Wi-Fi 6 was loosely focused on supporting lots of devices, Wi-Fi 7 seeks to boost speed and efficiency in use of those devices.

What the Wi-Fi Alliance says

Here’s how the Wi-Fi Alliance explains the upcoming standard: “Based on the developing IEEE 802.11be standard, Wi-Fi 7 will be the next major generational Wi-Fi technology evolution. Wi-Fi 7 focuses on physical (PHY) and medium access control (MAC) improvements capable of supporting a maximum throughput of at least 30Gbps to increase performance, enable Wi-Fi innovations, and expand use cases. Additional Wi-Fi 7 enhancements will support reduced latency and jitter for time sensitive networking applications including AR/VR, 4K and 8K video streaming, automotive, cloud computing, gaming, and video applications, as well as mission critical and industrial applications. As with other Wi-Fi generations, Wi-Fi 7 will be backward compatible and coexist with legacy devices in the 2.4, 5, and 6 GHz spectrum bands.”

What is the peak data rate?

The alliance promises peak data rates of 46Gbps, which is almost four times faster than Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and 6E and five times faster than Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). Wi-Fi 7 is also known as IEEE 802.11be Extremely High Throughput (EHT). It works in the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6Ghz bands.

What is Multi-Link Operation (MLO)

Latency is reduced through new technology that lets users simultaneously send and receive data over multiple radio bands. This is called Multi-Link Operation technology. The standard also raises the number of multi-user MIMO streams to 16. That increase in the number of available MIMO streams and the ability to automatically use the best available stream for any task is expected to reduce latency.

What is Restricted Target Wake Time?

This new Wi-Fi 7 feature means the router will be able to reserve bandwidth for specific types of data. That might mean work video conferencing will get guaranteed bandwidth, even while the family is streaming video, or that IoT-connected devices will see their control signals prioritized. Cisco has a good explanation of this.

What’s the bottom line for Wi-Fi 7?

At its simplest, Wi-Fi 7 will be able to handle the networking needs of dozens of devices. When doing so, it will be able to dynamically provide the best wireless signal to each of those devices, so if channels become congested, data throughput for devices will be shifted to another channel. The idea is that the standard can choose the best available frequencies and channels for any use at any time, and can also prioritize specific uses, if you wish.

Is the Wi-Fi 7 specification complete?

No, the complete specification for Wi-Fi 7 isn’t yet complete. The IEEE is expected to agree the final spec later this year. While they wait, manufacturers are preparing to introduce the first routers and devices to support the standard, but will need to upgrade them with the final spec once it’s released.

Who is Wi-Fi-7 for?

The constellation of technologies that constitute the Wi-Fi 7 standard should dramatically reduce buffering, lag, or network congestion. If you have many devices in your home, or have multiple Wi-Fi networks impacting each other’s performance, a switch to a Wi-Fi 7 router should improve your experience.

Apple is keeping pace

Intel, Qualcomm, Broadcom and MediaTek are also preparing to introduce Wi-Fi 7 support in their wireless products during the year, suggesting the first devices with Wi-Fi 7 should arrive by late 2024. If Apple does begin rolling out Wi-Fi 7 support next year, it will be keeping pace with the industry. It will also be a surprise, given it only began selling Macs with Wi-Fi 6E support in 2023.

One more thing

Apple is building its own 5G radios and is thought to be seeking to bring much of the rest of its network connectivity infrastructure in house. That means by the end of 2024 it may be using its own Wi-Fi, 5G, and Bluetooth chips.

Standards are nothing without infrastructure

Apple’s seeming delay in migrating to Wi-Fi 6E reflects the reality that not many Wi-Fi 6E routers are yet in use. After all, if your device supports fast Wi-Fi and your router doesn’t, you’ll be stuck with using slower Wi-Fi. That’s beginning to change, which is why Apple supports the standard in 2023 Macs. With that in mind it feels likely that Apple won’t introduce Wi-Fi 7 in Macs until late 2025 at the earliest, as routers won’t yet be in place.

When are routers coming?

The first routers to support early versions of Wi-Fi 7 should appear this year, but they’ll be very expensive. Working with the draft spec, manufacturers are working to get the first routers out the door before the final spec appears. Devices will then be updated to support the final spec. This is also how companies have managed previous Wi-Fi transitions.

Why does this matter?

According to Rahul Patel, Qualcomm’s senior vice president for cloud, connectivity, and networking, features in Wi-Fi 7 such as MLO “will benefit applications like Extended Reality, Virtual Reality, and gaming in the cloud.” 

For Apple, the synergies in terms of support for Apple Vision and the mixed-reality experiences it hopes its new product range will provide are clear: Faster throughput, better connection stability, and less network congestion should make for better experiences for Apple Vision Pro users. It might also make it possible for aspects of XR media consumption to be streamed from other Apple devices, potentially enabling new products in the Apple Vision range.

But for most users, the chance to get better bandwidth while supporting more devices and with lower network congestion is an improvement in itself.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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