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What is the difference between Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 7?

With its low latency, high throughput and multi-link operation capability, Wi-Fi 7 sounds promising. But will theoretical performance match the real-world experience?

As a wireless network architect, I'm just starting to deploy Wi-Fi 6E in the enterprise wireless LAN setting. This is considered bleeding edge right now. Currently, not many Wi-Fi 6E clients are available and most vendors shipping first-generation 6E access points are hoping the Wi-Fi experience lives up to the marketing hype.

Yet, in some ways, 6E's shine is already dimming a bit as its successor, Wi-Fi 7, generates some buzz and the IEEE continues down the development path. So, let's explore Wi-Fi 7, how it will differ from Wi-Fi 6E -- and Wi-Fi 6 for that matter -- and when we can expect it to become a reality.

Remember, though, that 6, 6E and 7 are not official wireless LAN standards, but rather nomenclatures of convenience adopted by the Wi-Fi Alliance. When we use the IEEE-given standard numbers, 6 and 6E are both 802.11ax and Wi-Fi 7 is 802.11be.

What is Wi-Fi 7?

Right now, Wi-Fi 7, or 802.11be, is an IEEE wireless standard in development. It is far enough along that we can discuss its features and expected performance. But remember the highest end of the specs are always theoretical, and real-world experience is often significantly less than those top-end numbers.

This is not unique to Wi-Fi 7, by any stretch. Look back at 802.11n, ac and ax as other standards that never quite achieved their maximum theoretical performance limits, but each is still far more impressive than its predecessor. Such is the reality of 802.11 standards.

Also like each standard before it, Wi-Fi 7 promises lower latency and dramatically higher throughput. With stated latency below 5 milliseconds and the potential for throughput well above 30 Gbps, Wi-Fi 7 is touted as a pending enabler for all sorts of new virtual reality and augmented reality applications. Sounds awesome, right? Just remember that term theoretical as we get closer to Wi-Fi 7. The new Wi-Fi standard will be slick, but we'll also explore why most clients will generally get far less throughput in a moment.

As with Wi-Fi 6E that added support for the spectrum-rich 6 GHz band to 802.11ax, Wi-Fi 7 will be "tri-band" and work in 2.4, 5 and 6 GHz frequency bands. The 802.11be standard introduces an impressive set of new features to the Wi-Fi space, including the following:

  • greatly enhanced modulation -- a whopping 4096 quadrature amplitude modulation versus 1024 QAM for Wi-Fi 6;
  • support for up to 16 spatial streams; and
  • 320 MHz channel widths, which sounds fantastical when you consider most of us run 20 or 40 MHz wide channels even in Wi-Fi 6.

One of the most impressive capabilities in Wi-Fi 7 is multi-link operation (MLO), which enables transmission between the access point and the client on different radios if radio frequency conditions allow it -- like both your 6 GHz and 5 GHz radios are in use for data transmission at the same time. That is a true first in the overall 802.11 evolution.

Even though Wi-Fi 7 supports 16x16 multiple input, multiple output, most mobile client devices are expected to stay in 2x2 configurations at best for the foreseeable future. So, if it takes 16 streams and 320 MHz wide channels to get to the high end of Wi-Fi 7 performance, it's guaranteed that most Wi-Fi 7 clients will only be capable of a fraction of that maximum. But, even so, the improved feature set of 802.11be means your smartphone may get real-world throughputs above 5 Gbps.

There's more magic under the hood of Wi-Fi 7, but these are the easily digested highlights.

Wi-Fi 7 vs. Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 6 has been out long enough to be in use in many large production environments as well as having respectable adoption in the consumer wireless router space. Wi-Fi 6E is just getting started with enterprise deployments, and the current supply chain woes aren't helping its slow growth.

Though 6 and 6E are both 802.11ax, they get treated as somewhat unique in marketing given that 6E uses the massive 6 GHz band. All three bands require Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) for security. Let's compare 6, 6E and 7 in the table below.

Wi-Fi 6 Wi-Fi 6E Wi-Fi 7
IEEE standard 802.11ax 802.11ax 802.11be
Spectrum used, GHz 2.4, 5 2.4, 5, 6 2.4, 5, 6
Spatial streams max 8 8 16
MLO No No Yes
Data rate max (theoretical) 9.6 9.6 30+
Required security WPA3 WPA3 WPA3

When will Wi-Fi 7 be available?

You can follow the IEEE's progress on Wi-Fi 7 here. Right now, ratification is expected in early 2024. Even if this date stays valid, pre-standard gear usually ships to early adopters. So, there's a chance we may see early equipment in late 2023.

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