Definition

Wi-Fi 7

What is Wi-Fi 7?

Wi-Fi 7 is the pending 802.11be standard under development by IEEE. The Wi-Fi Alliance branded the IEEE 802.11be standard as Wi-Fi 7 to create a simpler naming system for conversational ease. And, so, 802.11be equals Wi-Fi 7.

Regardless of how it's referenced, the next generation of Wi-Fi operates in 2.4 gigahertz, 5 GHz and 6 GHz spectrum -- the same way Wi-Fi 6E does, also known as 802.11ax. As an evolution of 802.11, Wi-Fi 7 is still a shared medium, half-duplex technology. But it also adds several new features and capabilities that set it apart from current and past standards.

How does Wi-Fi 7 work?

Building on the foundational constructs of 802.11, Wi-Fi 7 adds new capabilities, including the following features:

  • 4096 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM). The higher the value of QAM, the more data that can be packed into a given time slice. Wi-Fi 7's 4096 QAM is a substantial leap from the modulation found in earlier Wi-Fi standards.
  • Channel widths up to 320 megahertz (MHz). Wider channels also equal higher throughputs. Wi-Fi 7 supports an unprecedented 320 MHz channel width. That doesn't mean 320 MHz will be the norm, but it's technically available as part of the standard.
  • Up to 16 spatial streams. Each stream is essentially a multiplier when combined with channel width and the type of modulation in use. The 16 streams available in Wi-Fi 7 are double what's written into the Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E standard.
  • Multi-link operation (MLO). Truly new as a feature in Wi-Fi 7, MLO enables a client and access point (AP) to use multiple bands simultaneously to pass data.
  • Multiuser resource units. The resource unit construct originated in Wi-Fi 6 as a method to divide standard channel widths into more efficient, smaller subchannels when a full channel's width isn't required. Wi-Fi 7 adds multiuser capability to this enhancement.
  • Automated frequency coordination (AFC). For outdoor APs that operate in 6 GHz spectrum, AFC is required by the Federal Communications Commission to ensure Wi-Fi APs do not interfere with incumbent licensed users of the 6 GHz space. The AP's location is checked against a database of priority 6 GHz users in the local area for frequency coordination.

It remains to be seen if all the features and capabilities of Wi-Fi 7 will be available in the first product releases. It's likely the spatial stream count will be 4x4 or 8x8 on initial Wi-Fi 7 offerings, in sticking with the usual pattern of first-generation Wi-Fi product releases for any new standard.

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

From the spectrum perspective, Wi-Fi 7 works like Wi-Fi 6E in that both standards cover 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 6 GHz and require Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 security.

Curiously, 802.11ax covers both Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, but Wi-Fi 6 only works in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. For the modulation type, 6 and 6E both top out at 1024 QAM, whereas Wi-Fi 7 brings modulation options up to 4096 QAM when conditions can support it. This is part of why 802.11ax tops out at a theoretical data rate of 9.6 gigabits per second compared to 802.11be's theoretical maximum of almost 40 Gbps when combined with the other features of Wi-Fi 7.

But here's one thing that all three variants share: Client devices will continue to be limited to just a couple spatial streams. So, when a standard has about 4x4, 8x8 or 16x16 spatial streams, remember that those numbers are generally only applicable to the APs themselves. Client devices -- especially mobile devices like phones and tablets -- are expected to stay 2x2 or less for the foreseeable future.

For any wireless standard to reach its theoretical high throughput specifications, a wireless environment pretty much needs the maximum stream count as defined by the standard at both the AP and the client, running the widest channel option defined by the standard and all features enabled. But, with theoretical maximums aside, Wi-Fi 7 clients should routinely surpass gigabit speeds on well-designed networks.

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

Benefits of Wi-Fi 7

Whether at home on a Wi-Fi 7 router or in the enterprise wireless network setting, Wi-Fi 7 should shine in the areas of higher speeds, reduced latencies and the ability to handle higher client densities with each individual user having better connections.

Wi-Fi technology is at a point where it may finally compete with Ethernet for speed and reliability. Everything from cloud applications to virtual reality and the highest-resolution video will all benefit when run on Wi-Fi 7 clients connected to a properly designed Wi-Fi 7 network.

When will Wi-Fi 7 be available?

Wi-Fi 7 is expected to be ratified in early 2023. Wi-Fi fans can follow IEEE's progress on the standard here. Ratification, though, does not mean wide availability of products. The bigger players in the wireless local area network (WLAN) industry probably won't give Wi-Fi 7 legitimate attention until well into 2024. As with all 802.11 standards, the market should see consumer-grade offerings well ahead of enterprise gear.

What does the future look like for Wi-Fi?

It's hard to say what Wi-Fi 8 might look like, but count on new or improved features and better QAM, leading to new maximum theoretical data rates. Also, expect Wi-Fi products to trend evermore expensive on both the consumer and enterprise side. For business WLAN systems, Silicon Valley will continue the trend of licensing Wi-Fi products in creative ways to keep shareholders happy.

Other safe bets are the push for cloud management strategies and elaborate performance monitoring dashboards -- all also heavily licensed in exchange for the new performance capabilities.

This was last updated in October 2022

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