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Wi-Fi 7: What it is and how it will speed up your network

Wi-Fi router and laptop on table and phone with Wi-Fi connection
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Just as the Wi-Fi 6E home networking standard has started to impress power users with its ability to deliver more than 2 gigabits per second (Gbps) of wireless data, it risks being left in the digital dust by the next specification — Wi-Fi 7.  

Wi-Fi 7’s combination of three data bands, ultra-wide data channels and the ability to gang several data channels together for even more throughput gives the new standard the potential to usher in an era of wireless data reliability that could push wired connections aside.  

By picking up where Wi-Fi 6E left off, Wi-Fi 7 will incorporate many of Wi-Fi 6E's 6-GHz-spectrum tricks and add a few of its own. Here's everything you need to know about Wi-Fi 7.

What is Wi-Fi 7?

Technically known as Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) 802.11be (opens in new tab), Wi-Fi 7 uses the 2.4, 5 and 6-GHz spectrum bands and has taken on the nickname "EHT" for Extremely High Throughput wireless.   

The emerging Wi-Fi7 specification has the power to more than quadruple the total bandwidth that a wireless network is capable of. The details are still being worked out, but Wi-Fi 7’s potential bandwidth will likely land somewhere between 30 and 40 Gbps.  

This is several times more than the maximum 10GBase-T Ethernet standard of 10 Gbps and could tie Thunderbolt 4's ability to move 40 Gbps of data. The big difference is that Wi-Fi 7 will do it all without wires.

Wi-Fi 7 features and specs

In addition to new techniques to lower networking latency (the delay in networking response) and jitter (the variation in latency), the new spec seemingly has something for everyone. It includes supporting a greater density of connections, pushing higher spectrum efficiency and making Wi-Fi more reliable.

Although this seventh generation of Wi-Fi technology remains subject to change in the next couple of years as the IEEE 802.11be specification, hardware and software all get squared away, Wi-Fi 7’s main components and abilities are coming into focus.

The 160-MHz-wide data channel that's possible in Wi-Fi 6 (aka IEEE 802.11ax) can help satisfy the intense gamer at home as long as you have one of the best Wi-Fi 6 routers, but it's at the expense of tying up many of the more mundane 20-, 40- and 80-MHz-wide channels. (Wider channels can transport more data.)

Wi-Fi 6E doubled down on 160-MHz-wide data channels by adding the ability to tap into seven of such channels in the 6-GHz frequency band. If that's not enough, Wi-Fi 7 adds up to three 6-GHz-frequency data channels that each are 320 MHz wide and can move 2.4 Gbps each. (Here's a comparison of Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E.)

Wi-Fi 7: More streams, more devices, more antennas

The Wi-Fi 7 spec breaks new ground with Multi Link Operation (MLO), which is similar to the carrier aggregation that mobile phone providers use to increase data throughput by combining the abilities of separate channels. 

According to Intel, MLO can raise data rates seven-fold while lowering latency and improving dependability because linked channels work in parallel.

While Wi-Fi 6 can handle up to eight independent streams of data, Wi-Fi 7 raises that to 16 spatial streams. It uses Coordinated Multiuser MIMO (CMU-MIMO), which is a big step up from Multi-User Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO). 

This should satisfy the most demanding users while letting those around them do more mundane tasks, such as looking for recipes online or trading emails.

As if to further add to the alphabet soup aspect of Wi-Fi 7, the new spec uses a technique called Multi-User Resource Unit (MRU) to avoid interference. It allows selective puncturing of overlapping portions of the spectrum to let the data flow only on frequencies that are clear. It can help raise data rates and reliability in congested Wi-Fi environments, such as in an apartment building or a crowded office.

The secret sauce of how Wi-Fi 7 works is how the data gets put on and taken off the router's carrier waves, which is where Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) comes in. Instead of Wi-Fi 6's 1024-QAM, Wi-Fi 7 will increase the data density of the air waves by using the 4096-QAM technique. It should have the ability to shoehorn up to four times as much data into the same frequencies.

On the downside, the price to pay for adding all these Wi-Fi 7 transmission tricks is that the next generation of routers might need up twice as many antennas to funnel all those data streams in and out. With 12 antennas already gracing the inside of the Wi-Fi 6E-capable Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500, the next generation of routers run the risk of getting very crowded with two dozen or more antennas.

Wi-Fi 7: Breaking the 10 Gbps barrier

On the other hand, these antennas might be doubled up, hidden inside the router's case or used as a design element. as you can see with the current TP-Link Archer GT AXE11000's eight external antennas.

"The first generation of Wi-Fi 7 routers might be a bit big," said James Chen, associate vice president of product marketing at MediaTek, a maker of Wi-Fi chips. "But over time, they will look like a lot like what we use today."

Recently, MediaTek showed off alpha-level silicon for its upcoming Filogic line of Wi-Fi 7 chips to provide a sneak peek as to what's on the way. The new chips hit a peak throughput of roughly 10 Gbps in the demonstration, about four times what today's best routers are capable of.

With this much bandwidth on tap, Wi-Fi 7 could play a role as the data backbone for the home. They could make wired connections outdated while serving up enough data to be used for applications like very-high-resolution video streams and simulated worlds with virtual- and augmented-reality goggles.

"This is just the start," said MediaTek's Chen.

Wi-Fi 7: High-speed internet plans required

To get the most out of Wi-Fi 7 home users will need to upgrade their data plans far beyond the 100-Mbps broadband that is the maximum offered by internet service providers in many areas. Otherwise, all that extra speed will be wasted, and your new router will be like a Ferrari trying to muscle its way through a mud bog.

While gigabit-per-second bandwidth will likely be a starting point, plans like the AT&T 5-Gbps fiber-optic service (opens in new tab) that is being rolled out fit nicely into the Wi-Fi 7 way of networking. Unfortunately, the AT&T 5-Gbps home service costs $180 a month — three times the cost of the average U.S. data plan.

"Having access to high-speed Internet will be key for Wi-Fi 7," adds MediaTek's Chen.

When will Wi-Fi 7 routers arrive?

The entire Wi-Fi 7 proposition depends on designing, manufacturing and testing the next generation of Wi-Fi chips. Expect the major chipmakers, including Broadcom, MediaTek, Qualcomm and others, to create their own circuits for bringing Wi-Fi 7 to reality in the best Wi-Fi routers and client devices such as phones, tablets and notebooks. Expect to see tri-band and quad-band designs for traditional routers and high-performance mesh kits.

Unfortunately, at a time when the world is starved for semiconductor products of all types, it might take longer than expected to get this generation of Wi-Fi technology off the CAD screen and to market. Look for the first Wi-Fi 7 products to appear sometime in late 2023 or early 2024.

There might be a happy twist to the timing. Because of the lack of devices that can get the most out of Wi-Fi 6E, "some manufacturers could go around Wi-Fi 6E and go directly to Wi-Fi 7," offers MediaTek's Chen.

Either way, it will still end up being another case of hurry up and wait for the latest and fastest Wi-Fi protocol to make it to reality. One thing is certain: We'll be here to test the first Wi-Fi 7 routers and devices just as soon as they're available.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in technology reporting and reviewing. He works out of the suburban New York City area and has covered topics from nuclear power plants and Wi-Fi routers to cars and tablets. The former editor-in-chief of Mobile Computing and Communications, Nadel is the recipient of the TransPacific Writing Award.