Wi-Fi 7 is the newest version of the Wi-Fi standard and is nearly five times faster than Wi-Fi 6. It includes significant bandwidth and latency improvements, as well as optimizations that benefit modern device-rich homes. The first Wi-Fi 7 routers and devices will be available in early 2023.
Although Wi-Fi 6E still feels bleeding edge at the start of 2023, Wi-Fi 7 is just around the corner, and sporting speeds that might make transfer speeds might make Ethernet cables obsolete. Let’s take a look at the proposed spec and what it promises.
The most show-stopping feature of Wi-Fi 7 is that it might make wired Ethernet connections obsolete for a certain class of both home users and professionals—the first live demonstration of the standard in early 2022 showcased some mind-blowing speeds.
Wi-Fi 7 can theoretically support bandwidth up to 46 gigabits per second (Gbps) per access point, which is just shy of five times as fast as the maximum 9.6 Gbps speed of Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax). The draft authors call this “Extremely High Throughput,” or EHT.
Currently, commonly-available wired Ethernet technology maxes out at 10 Gbps (10GBASE-T), although it’s basically non-existent in consumer devices at the moment. And although higher speeds (such as Terabit Ethernet) exist in specialist settings like data centers, its arrival in the home or small business setting—if it ever happens—is likely far off.
So for current users of both Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi 7 might be able to replace the need for wired connections under optimal conditions—though purists and power users will likely continue to use hard-wired connections for the foreseeable future.
RELATED: What Is Wi-Fi 6? (802.11ax)
Aside from the theoretical potential of blazingly fast speeds of Wi-Fi 7, the Wi-Fi Alliance plans to include other notable improvements in the Wi-Fi standard.
Full utilization of the new “6 GHz Band” (actually 5.925–7.125 GHz), was first supported in Wi-Fi 6E. The 6GHz band is currently only occupied by Wi-Fi applications (although that might change), and using it results in dramatically less interference than the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands.
The draft Wi-Fi 7 spec aims at “lower lateness and higher reliabilities” for time-sensitive networking (TSN), which is essential for cloud computing (and cloud gaming). It’s also a critical requirement for replacing wired Ethernet connections.
While Wi-Fi 6 already offers significant improvements over Wi-Fi 5 in the latency department, the goal of Wi-Fi 7 is to provide consistent single-digit millisecond latency for all devices across the entire network—and not just for the devices in the optimal coverage area.
Wi-Fi 7 offers Multi-Link Operation (MLO) with load balancing and aggregation that combines multiple channels on different frequencies to deliver better performance.
This means a Wi-Fi 7 router will be able to utilize all bands and channels available dynamically to speed up connections or avoid bands with high interference. This improvement, along with the others listed here, is how Wi-Fi 7 can hit a theoretical maximum throughput three times higher than Wi-Fi 6.
According to the draft spec, Wi-Fi 7 will offer direct enhancements of Wi-Fi 6 technologies, such as 320 MHz channel width (up from 160 MHz in Wi-Fi 6), which allows faster connections, and 4096 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) technology that allows more data crammed into each hertz.
Talking about specs is fun, but for day-to-day use people have much more concrete questions. Let’s take a look at the most frequent questions we get about Wi-Fi 7.
The Wi-Fi 7 draft spec spells out backward compatibility with legacy devices in the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz bands, which means you won’t need all-new devices or hardware to connect to a Wi-Fi 7-enabled router.
Just like your Wi-Fi 5 devices work on a Wi-Fi 6 network (and, conversely, your Wi-Fi 6 devices work on a Wi-Fi 5 network), the Wi-Fi 7 standard continues the tradition of cross-generation compatibility. Naturally, however, you won’t get all the benefits of Wi-Fi 7 unless you’re using a Wi-Fi 7 device with your Wi-Fi 7 router.
On paper and in laboratory tests with compatible gear, yes, Wi-Fi 7 is significantly better than previous Wi-Fi standards.
However, like with all previous Wi-Fi generations, you won’t see the full benefit of Wi-Fi 7 until you pair it with Wi-Fi 7 hardware. That said, the Wi-Fi 6 optimizations we mentioned in the previous section will help Wi-Fi 7 routers provide an even better experience to Wi-Fi 6 devices on your network.
Given the number of facts and figures you have to take in to compare Wi-Fi generations to each other (as well as the seemingly limitless number of routers out there) it’s easy to get confused about security standards.
The Wi-Fi standard is separate from the security standard, Wireless Protected Acess (WPA) used by modern Wi-Fi hardware. Wi-Fi 5 supports WPA2, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E support WPA3, and Wi-Fi 7 will ship with WPA3 support. (In theory, a WPA4 is on the distant horizon but as of now you’ll find little more than a passing reference in the form of “WPA4 (TBD)” sprinkled here or there in technical documents.)
In short, when you purchase a new Wi-Fi 7 router it will have the most current Wi-Fi security available and will be as secure (or more secure) than your current router depending on the age of the replaced router model.
If you’re rocking an ancient Wi-Fi router, especially one struggling to meet your household’s growing demands, you’d likely be well served to snap up a Wi-Fi 7 router.
If you recently bought a nice Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E router, however, there’s no rush. While there are clear benefits to the Wi-Fi 7 standard even if you’re a cutting-edge sort of user that adopts new technology as soon as it comes out, it’ll be a while until you see tangible benefits from switching your home over to Wi-Fi 7 if you’re already on Wi-Fi 6 or better.
Chasing performance benchmarks is fun, but in real-world applications, you only need so much bandwidth to watch YouTube videos on your phone or sit on a Zoom call at work.
So if you have a dusty old mid-tier router you bought off the shelf at Best Buy 5+ years ago, consider upgrading. But if you’re already rocking a current and premium setup, feel free to sit it out for a spell and wait for the Wi-Fi 7 prices to drop (and more end devices to support it).
We’ve touched upon this in previous sections, but when it comes right down to it what most people care about is: how much better is the next generation of Wi-Fi compared to what I have right now? Not only is that a perfectly fair question but it’s really the only question you should care about in the end, because upgrading with no benefit is a waste of money.
If your router is reasonably new, it probably supports Wi-Fi 5, technically known as 802.11ac. Assuming your device is also Wi-Fi 5-enabled, you can expect to get a maximum transfer speed of 3.5 Gbps.
However, that’s the theoretical maximum speed for optimal conditions only. You probably won’t actually achieve that speed. It’s influenced and brought down by factors like your internet plan, your Wi-Fi router’s location and surroundings, your device’s location (as well as what Wi-Fi generation your device supports), and interference coming from nearby networks.
Wi-Fi 7 under optimal conditions rockets past 5 with a maximum speed of 46 Gbps—a more than 750% increase. Not only that, but it’s also capable of utilizing bands that Wi-Fi 5 can’t access. That wider spectrum gives your router more elbow room, so to speak. Nearby networks won’t have to compete so rabidly for the same channels, allowing for reduced interference.
Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll jump directly from Wi-Fi 5 to 7 unless you seriously procrastinate about upgrading your equipment. You’ll probably switch to using Wi-Fi 6 or 6E before a Wi-Fi 7-enabled device ever gets in your hands.
If you’re on the bleeding edge of wireless technology, you’re probably using Wi-Fi 6, or less commonly, Wi-Fi 6E. If you were to upgrade to Wi-Fi 7’s draft specs right now, the improvement in speed capabilities wouldn’t be quite as dramatic as switching from Wi-Fi 5, but still impressive. Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, under optimal conditions, can achieve speeds of up to 9.6 Gbps, only a third of Wi-Fi 7’s capability.
Wi-Fi 6E already has access to the 6 GHz band that Wi-Fi 7 will, avoiding the congestion problems of the 2.5 GHz and 5 GHz bands. What 6E doesn’t have, though, is the Multi-Link Operation (MLO) we discussed above, which further enhances Wi-Fi 7’s ability to avoid interference.
That means Wi-Fi 7 will handle the same channels that 6E does, but more effectively. Other advantages over Wi-Fi 6 and 6E include higher quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) and broader channel bandwidth.
Right now, a wired internet connection is almost always faster and more reliable than your home Wi-Fi connection. Some have speculated, though, that a Wi-Fi 7 connection will be better than wired. This is potentially true only if you’re talking about Ethernet cables graded below Cat-8, which is a category of Ethernet cable that can be rated for speeds of up to 40Gbps. That said, Cat-8 is intended for data centers, not your home network. The cable that came with your router is most likely a Cat-5 or Cat-6 cable, rated no higher than 10Gbps.
As always, these comparisons are only valid if your network is set up in optimal conditions, which is difficult to achieve. While Wi-Fi 7 will bring improvements to the battle against interference and latency, exactly how well it will perform remains to be seen. And, of course, Ethernet cables themselves are subject to slow-downs and issues.
All that said, there will always be people who prefer to use Ethernet and, as we’ve pointed out before, the surest way to remove congestion from your home network is to stop using Wi-Fi (and lean on Ethernet to do the heavy lifting).
With all this information in hand, there’s the final million-dollar question. When will you be able to buy a Wi-Fi 7 router?
According to a CES 2023 news release from MediaTek, Wi-Fi 7 is now production ready. Announcements from major router companies support that. In November of 2022, TP-Link announced a line of Wi-Fi 7 routers. And at CES 2023, ASUS announced two premium Wi-Fi 7 routers. The TP-Link routers are projected to be available in early 2023, with Wi-Fi 7 routers from other manufacturers trickling in throughout 2023.
In the meantime, you can already buy routers that support Wi-Fi 6 (and Wi-Fi 6E), which is still impressive compared to earlier Wi-Fi standards. We’ve written a guide covering the best routers on the market. Whichever way you choose to go, it’s clear there are exciting times ahead for wireless networking.