What is Wi-Fi 7?

In tech, newer usually means better and faster, and that’s the case with Wi-Fi, too. The newest standard, Wi-Fi 7, is on the horizon and promises substantial speed and reliability benefits. It’s that easy to summarize, but there are more particular and technical benefits it offers, improving on both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E in key ways.

Final 802.11be standards to be finalized soon

Before we get too deep, we would like to caveat everything you’re about to read with one simple fact: The final 802.11be Wi-Fi 7 amendment hasn’t actually been published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE,) and until it is, all these features and specs are merely standards expected to land when everything is official. Most of, if not all of the standards will likely make it, but they are subject to change, and there could even be additions.


Many of the proposed changes were circulated in a paper published by the IEEE (paywall) that you can read more easily here (PDF). Other details come courtesy of companies like Qualcomm, Intel, and MediaTek that have a hand in developing the hardware and input in the standards they’ll use.

Wi-Fi 7 — aka 802.11be Extremely High Throughput

Wi-Fi 7 is also known by the name 802.11be Extremely High Throughput. Odds are no one will use that longer name, but the “be” suffix might appear on some spec sheets much as 801.11ax does for Wi-Fi 6, so it’s worth remembering.

Wi-Fi 7 will be backward compatible with prior Wi-Fi implementations, so you don’t have to worry about a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E device not working right on a new Wi-Fi 7 router. The same goes for Wi-Fi 7-compatible client devices. They can connect to older Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 access points with no issues.

We’re still in the so-called “draft” stage for Wi-Fi 7, but certification and certified products are expected to start appearing sometime in 2024. However, you might see some hardware land a little early in 2023 based on the draft specs, and much of it should be compatible with the final version. If you’re worried about buying the “wrong” kind of Wi-Fi 7 hardware, you might want to make your purchase until 2024.

Now that you know the basics and the schedule, let’s dive into exactly what is changing with this new version of Wi-Fi.

Wider channels for more speed

Wi-Fi 7’s headline change is probably an expansion to 320 MHz channels in the 6 GHz spectrum. That might seem like a bunch of numbers to you, but there is a very real and important takeaway from this.

Generally speaking, wider channels mean a fatter pipe between client devices and the router, which means a faster pipe. This doubling of the channel size should mean a minimum doubling of throughput from Wi-Fi 6E’s 9.6 Gbps theoretical maximum, but combined with other technologies that we’ll touch on later, it will actually be even faster than that.

According to the IEEE, Wi-Fi 7 should allow “at least 30 Gbps per AP” and be about four times as fast as Wi-Fi 6. MediaTek’s estimates place Wi-Fi 7 performance up around 36 Gbps, while Intel believes it might reach 46.1 Gbps. These are theoretical maximums you will never see in real-world circumstances. Still, the smaller and more realistic fraction that you’ll benefit from will be a substantial upgrade over Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.

This expansion in channel size only applies to the new 6 GHz frequencies that landed as part of Wi-Fi 6E—2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies will still use up to 40 MHz and 160 MHz channel maximums, respectively. However, thanks to other improvements in Wi-Fi 7, even these lower-frequency and smaller channels may be able to operate faster.

Lower latency

The “old” Wi-Fi 6 standard made huge steps in reducing latency for client devices, but as AR and VR become increasingly big buzzwords (still missing their “killer app”), even double-digit ms latency is a concern. If you’re streaming VR content from the edge, the lower the motion-to-photon latency (MTP latency) describing the lag from motion in AR to a visual change that responds to it), the better. Wi-Fi 7 doesn’t substantially decrease “normal” latency, but it was designed to reduce lag in worst-case circumstances.

As you can see from the graph above, Wi-Fi 7/802.11be should have a substantial reduction in worst-case latency. These reductions are achieved through several methods, like coordinated beamforming and parameterized spatial reuse. Without getting too in the weeds, these are tiny ways to improve corner-case circumstances where latency might otherwise spike, and they have the benefit of improving reliability and throughput as well—more speed gains. Multiple Resouce Unit (MRU), the next technology we’ll discuss, also offers latency improvements in certain circumstances.

MRU Puncturing

Wi-Fi 6E opened up a new set of frequencies for consumers to stream videos on, which is particularly handy in dense urban environments where the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands were becoming quite saturated. In essence, a whole old-growth virgin forest of the spectrum is now available for gadgets to connect to, but it’s not entirely empty. Like every other set of frequencies that could potentially be used for something, there are so-called “incumbents” that have been using it for other applications.

According to Cisco, these incumbents include point-to-point fixed service links, satellite service, television broadcast, and even radar. Extending the forest metaphor perhaps a little too far, there are a few angry bears out there who you don’t want to stumble into and interfere with on your 6 GHz Wi-Fi journey. Enter: Multi-RU/MRU Puncturing.

This simple little technology divides operating channels into sort of sub-channels in 20 MHz chunks. Any incumbent use can then be partitioned off with a safe buffer while still preserving the channel it’s a part of, rather than writing off whole channels entirely. So if incumbent use interferes with using those big 320 MHz channels, your router can automatically “fence off” those parts of it and use the rest of those big channels just fine, rather than having to exclude them or fall back on smaller channel sizes (and lower speeds). To finally destroy that forest metaphor, this means fencing off the bears as tightly as you can rather than outright ignoring huge chunks of the woods because there might be one in it.

MRU also decreases latency in instances where multiple uploads occur simultaneously. Rather than having to queue uploads sequentially to prevent devices from talking over one another, they can operate on separate sub-frequencies. Wi-Fi 6 could do that, but this further optimizes that operation when upload data lengths differ.

Up to 16×16 (CMU-?) MIMO

Wi-Fi has supported Multiple-Input-Multiple-Output (MIMO) for a while, but Wi-Fi 6 rolled out a substantial change to it. Previously MIMO was only used to expand the size of the pipe going to each device. Starting with Wi-Fi 6, it could be used to allow multiple devices to talk to the access point on separate pipes at the same time—so-called Multi-user MIMO, or MU-MIMO.

Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi handled up to eight data streams (8×8 MIMO), but Wi-Fi 7 will expand that to up to 16 data streams, or 16×16 MIMO. As usual, more pipes = faster, so there are speed gains here, but it also means more devices will be able to “talk” to the router simultaneously. This can mean more simultaneous screens streaming with fewer issues, more folks gaming without lag, and increased reliability and reduced lag for IoT and smart home gadgets, for example.

The IEEE didn’t mention it in its Wi-Fi 7 white paper, but earlier in the Wi-Fi 7 planning cycle, there were plans to make MIMO work better across multiple access points in what’s called Coordinated Multiuser MIMO (CMU-MIMO). The benefits here are a little less clear-cut, but it sounds like it should reduce interference in congested areas with multiple access points, as well as improve speed and reliability for individual devices. However, it’s not clear if this will ultimately be part of Wi-Fi 7. (We’ve reached out to the Wi-Fi Alliance to find out whether it’s still on the table for Wi-Fi 7 or not.)

Multi-link Operations (MLO) will do something that a lot of people may have assumed Wi-Fi could do already—it will simultaneously use multiple sets of frequencies. And we don’t just mean having your router transmit as an access point for client devices across 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz frequencies. We mean having a single client device access an access point simultaneously on 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz channels.

The obvious benefit here is speed. Two big pipes are better than one big pipe for pumping data, and being connected to more than one opens up both of them. According to Intel, this could result in 7.2x the maximum aggregated data rate compared to Wi-Fi 6.

Like almost everything else in Wi-Fi 7, this also offers latency benefits. If a device maintains a simultaneous connection across multiple bands, there’s no latency when it has to switch based on load balancing or traffic needs between them. It’s already connected and doesn’t have to wait tens or hundreds of milliseconds to move between them. It can also offer improvements to worst-case latency in a heavier network load by increasing the so-called “Transmission Opportunity.”

Other Wi-Fi 7 benefits

Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) was picked up in Wi-Fi 6E, and it’s how we can use this new 6 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi without interfering with existing use. AFC means that in areas where radar or other broadcast sources still use those frequencies, transmit power is reduced to prevent interference. But in areas where there isn’t any incumbent use, power transmit levels can be cranked up. Again, this is “old” and debuted with Wi-Fi 6E. However, according to the IEEE, Wi-Fi 7 will expand how many devices can use AFC, increasing signal strength and connection reliability for more devices.

4K Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (4K QAM) isn’t new-new, either. Some Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E devices from companies like Qualcomm supported the technology in the past, but it will be the standard in Wi-Fi 7. In essence, QAM is a way to squeeze more data inside the same signal—multiplexing, basically. It gets really fun if you look at the modulated waveform’s so-called “constellation,” which visually shows in a grid how much information you can shove in there.

This visual is for fiber optics, but the idea is similar. More dots mean more individual phases and amplitudes in the signal, and more data can be crammed in.

Wi-Fi 6 offered 1K QAM, which basically means 1,024 phases of magnitude can be crammed into a carrier signal, while Wi-Fi 7 will allow for 4,096 phases of magnitude. The increase will not equate to a linear bump in performance. According to Litepoint, this should work out to a peak negotiated data rate increase of 20% over 1K QAM or a 20% bump in the maximum connection speed.

Other changes to benefit areas with congested networks or multiple access point networks are also in the works, as is a potential Restricted Target Wake Time adjustment that networks can use to reserve capacity at certain times for specific use cases, inherited from the IoT-targeted Wi-Fi HaLow standard—potentially really handy for industrial and enterprise uses.

Wi-Fi 7 TL;DR

A lot of these acronyms and numbers all ultimately work together to mean the same things: Wi-Fi 7 will be faster and more reliable. We’ve come full circle from the big-picture effect to the individual causes, but now you know why it will be better in these ways. We can start throwing around some other numbers you can be more directly excited about: Wi-Fi 7 should be around 4x faster than Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, and compatible devices may see better and more reliable connections in congested areas and previously troublesome spots. If you use VR, worst-case latency numbers will fall, and you may notice better streaming AR/VR performance.

You should still remember that things are in flux until the final version of the Wi-Fi 7 spec is published. In the draft stage, we may yet see other benefits added or some of these technologies ultimately removed. CMU-MIMO, for example, was a “maybe” for Wi-Fi 7 circa 2020 and 2021 and wasn’t directly mentioned in the IEEE’s 2021 white paper. But the technologies we are sure will make the cut should see Wi-Fi 7 deliver substantial increases in connection speed and reliability, with much-improved latency in corner-case situations.

For certain folks, there might even be a rush to upgrade to Wi-Fi 7 when it lands. If you’re big into AR and VR, the latency gains in worst-case scenarios could be substantial and even observable in some applications. If you have a ton of smart home hardware or issues with congestion on your existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, and you skipped Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, then Wi-Fi 7 is probably the time to upgrade your router. And if you wait a year or two after the first models land, prices for Wi-Fi 7 hardware should start to fall, making it an easier choice. (Some Wi-Fi 6E mesh networking systems, for example, cost over $1,000 when the technology first debuted, though prices have since fallen.)

Wi-Fi standards are increasingly complex, and the combination of minor technological and feature improvements will offer aggregated benefits. Now that some of these changes have been illuminated, you know a little more about how and why Wi-Fi 7 is faster and better, so you can decide when and if it’s worth planning for an upgrade. If you’re thinking about upgrading your smart home gear once you pick up a Wi-Fi 7 router, you’ll want to learn more about the Matter iOT standard.

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