You must have heard of Wi-Fi 7 by now. Since the end of 2021, this latest wireless standard has been a major topic in getting your devices connected. Among a sea of marketing superlatives and online clickbait content, Wi-Fi 7 can be confusing.
And that’s where this post comes into play. I will explain the new Wi-Fi standard in the most down-to-earth manner. Still, things can get a bit technical — we’re talking about something that can’t be seen.
In any case, as of right now, the first and most important thing to remember is this: Wi-Fi 7 is not fully there yet. It’s still in draft. We’ll likely have to wait until late 2024 to know all it can offer.
But on the other hand, with some effort and a good amount of cash, you can genuinely taste (part of) the new standard today. I speak from experience.
With that, let’s dig in.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on November 19, 2021. Since then, it’s been updated multiple times to reflect the evolving state of the new wireless standard. I last updated it on November 18, 2023, and plan to do that at least one more time until the standard is ratified.
Wi-Fi 7: What it is and its current state
The name alone is telling. It’s the 7th generation of Wi-Fi, the most common way to connect devices locally and, hence, to the Internet.
Technically, Wi-Fi 7 is the friendly name of the 802.11be standard, which is why you’ll see “BE” in the (model) name of broadcasters (routers or access points) supporting this standard. That’s similar to Wi-Fi 6, which is for 802.11ax; Wi-Fi 5 means 802.11ac, etc. It’s much easier to remember that 7 comes after and is “more” than 6.
Like all previous Wi-Fi standards, Wi-Fi 7 will be backward compatible. (Most of) your existing devices will be able to connect to a Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster, and so will a Wi-Fi 7 client to a router of an older standard. However, this backward compatibility is only true when there’s no security involved — that’s when you use a Wi-Fi network (or SSID) in an “Open” state.
New Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to require higher security protocols, and most Wi-Fi 7 routers I’ve tested require at least WPA2 for 5GHz and/or 2.4GHz bands. (The 6GHz band always requires WPA3). In this case, older clients supporting WPA or lesser protocols — those with the first-gen Wi-Fi 5 or earlier standard — are no longer supported when security is enabled. (Your iPhone 5 and older are among those.)
Considering most of us nowadays use the 2nd-Gen (Wave 2) Wi-Fi 5 and newer clients, this might not be a huge issue, and you can take the “backward compatible” notion of Wi-Fi 7 at its face value. So, in most cases, it doesn’t hurt to get a new Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster today.
On the other hand, if you’re still clinging to old devices — and there’s nothing wrong with that — keep in mind that Wi-Fi 7 won’t necessarily render them obsolete. You’ll continue to see vendors releasing new Wi-Fi 6E and even Wi-Fi 6 hardware options for the foreseeable future.
Wi-Fi 7: The first devices you can buy today
To experience Wi-Fi 7, you will need new hardware on both ends of a connection.
On the broadcasting side, many networking vendors announced their first Wi-Fi 7 routers in late 2022, but it wasn’t until May 2023 that you could buy the first hardware, the TP-Link BE85. As the year progressed, we saw more and more hardware. I’ve worked on a handful, and there will soon be more.
On the receiving side, on May 2, 2023, the One Plus 11 5G became the first device in the US to support Wi-Fi 7, (similar to how the Samsung S21 Ultra was the first with Wi-Fi 6E years ago). Soon after, the Motorola Edge + was the second phone to join the club and then came the Pixel 8 Pro and others. It’s safe to say most future releases of flagship phones will follow suit. (Interestingly, the iPhone 15 doesn’t, but that’s how Apple rolls. The company took a decade to finally move its phone to USB-C.)
While smartphones are legit clients, we’d need only so much bandwidth on one, making the Wi-Fi 7 support on this type of device less impactful. That said, most significantly, Intel announced its BE200 and BE202 Wi-Fi 7 chips in September. They became available in November as add-on adapters and built-in components within new Intel-based motherboards.
The two chips put me in a mini-quest to build my own Wi-Fi 7-enabled PCs, and after some epic-worthy efforts, I succeeded (possibly with glory). But the achievement revealed an unexpected twist:
A true Wi-Fi 7 experience must still wait a while, possibly until late 2024. That’s when the software drivers supporting the standard become available. For now, these new Wi-Fi 7 chips, while identified as such within a computer, function largely like Wi-Fi 6E counterparts.
Rumors have it that Microsoft and Intel will not fully support Wi-Fi 7 until Windows 11 24H2 (or Windows 12), expected to be released in the second part of next year. (Windows 11 23H2, which fully supports Wi-Fi 6E, came out in October this year.)
And that makes sense since that’s also the timeline when Wi-Fi 7 is expected to be ratified. Until then, existing BE200 and BE202 chips will work similarly to their Wi-Fi 6E counterparts.
So, here’s the current deal: You can get a Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster and build your own or upgrade your existing computer into a Wi-Fi 7 client today. And they will work to an extent. But a real Wi-Fi 7 experience, with all of its bells, whistles, and, most importantly, speeds, still needs more time.
Wi-Fi 7 and Ethernet: Multi-Gig is the norm
While on the wireless front, things are still somewhat up in the air. On the wired front, one thing is clear:
The new Wi-Fi standard will not and is not meant to “replace Ethernet,” as you might have read somewhere by lazy tech “journalists” or Wi-Fi “experts” who likely repeated the nonsensical marketing languages of some networking vendor.
Quite contrarily, Wi-Fi 7 reinforces the relevancy and solidifies the use of multi-Gigabit wired connections widely available via the Multi-Gig standard, turning it into the minimum requirement for any broadcasters.
All Wi-Fi 7 broadcasters I’ve worked with include multiple Multi-Gig ports — except the Linksys Velop Pro 7, which has only one. Most have two or more 10Gbps ports and don’t even have Gigabit ports anymore.
And that has to be the case since Wi-Fi 7’s theoretical wireless speeds are too great for the good old Gigabit standard — no matter how fast a Wi-Fi broadcaster is, its wireless bandwidth is limited by its network port.
It only makes sense for a Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster to embrace Multi-Gig. And that’s great. Multi-Gig is the way of the future.
Network connection: Wi-Fi vs Wired
Fundamentally, Wi-Fi can never replace Ethernet.
Wi-Fi: Partial bandwidth and always Half-Duplex. Data moves using a portion of a band (spectrum), called a channel, in one direction at a time. You can think of Wi-Fi as the walkie-talkie in voice communication.
Wired: Full bandwidth and (generally) Full-Duplex. Data travel using the entire cable’s bandwidth and in both ways simultaneously. That’s similar to a phone call in voice communication.
While Wi-Fi is super-convenient, it’s only relevant when operating on top of a reliable and fast wired connection.
The connection rates aside, compared to Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi 7 likely won’t increase the range by much, and if so, only on the 6GHz band.
Let’s find out more.
Wi-Fi 7 vs Wi-Fi 6/6E: Four key items to potentially turn it a game-changer
In many ways, Wi-Fi 7 combines Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.
The new standard uses all three bands, including 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz. However, the 6GHz is still where it can deliver top speeds. Additionally, when ratified, it also has unprecedented improvements in the other two bands, especially the 5GHz.
It’s important to note that the availability of the 6GHz band varies from one region to another due to local regulations. I’m writing from the perspective of the US market.
By default, Wi-Fi 7 shares theoretical coverage similar to existing standards that use the same frequencies, with the 2.4GHz having the longest range, then the 5GHz, and then the 6GHz with the shortest range.
However, the new standard may have a longer effective range, depending on the environment and implementation, thanks to four important (and exciting) new features of Wi-Fi 7. Generally, the first two better the standard’s throughput speeds, and the other two improve its range.
A quick refresher: Wi-Fi works via three frequency bands. Each has multiple channels to deliver traffic via streams. The cabinet below contains some quick highlights on these confusing terms.
Wi-Fi in brief: Bands vs Channels vs Streams
Wi-Fi uses three frequency bands, including 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz.
Depending on the Wi-Fi standards and hardware, each band can have multiple channels of different widths, including 20MHz, 40MHz, 80MHz, 160Mhz, and 320MHz. The wider a channel is, the more bandwidth it has.
Data moves in a channel via streams, often dual-stream (2×2), three-stream (3×3), or quad-stream (4×4). The more streams, the more data can travel at a time.
Here’s a crude analogy:
If a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, then channels are lanes, and streams are vehicles (bicycles vs cars vs semi-trailer trucks). On the same road, you can put multiple adjacent standard lanes (20MHz) into a larger one (40MHz, 80MHz, or higher) to accommodate oversized vehicles (higher number of streams) that carry more goods (data) per trip (connection).
A Wi-Fi connection generally occurs on a single channel (lane) of a single band (road) at a time. The actual data transmission is always that of the lowest denominator — a bicycle can carry just one person at a relatively slow speed, even when used on a super-wide lane of an open freeway.
1. The all-new 320MHz channel width
The first is the new and much wider channel width, up to 320MHz or double that of Wi-Fi 6/6E.
This new channel width is generally available on the 6GHz band, with up to three 320MHz channels. However, Wi-Fi 7 can also combine portions of the 6GHz and 5GHz bands to create this new bandwidth — more in the Multi-Link Operation section below.
Details of Wi-Fi channels can be found here, but the new channel width generally means Wi-Fi 7 can double the base speed, from 1.2Gbps per stream (160MHz) to 2.4Gbps per stream (320MHz).
So, in theory, just from the width alone, a 4×4 broadcaster 6GHz Wi-Fi 7 can have up to 9.6 Gbps of bandwidth — or 10Gbps when rounded up. But there’s more to Wi-Fi 7’s bandwidth below.
Depending on the configuration, Wi-Fi 7 routers and access points will be available in different speed grades, including those offering bandwidths higher or lower than 10Gbps on the 6GHz band.
Wi-Fi 7 also supports double the partial streams, up to 16. As a result, technically, a 16-stream (16×16) Wi-Fi 7 6GHz band can deliver up to over 40Gbps of bandwidth, especially when considering the new QAM support below.
Like Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, initially, Wi-Fi 7 will be available as dual-stream (2×2) and quad-stream (4×4) broadcasters and dual-stream clients. Going forward, the standard might have 8×8 broadcasters and single-stream or quad-stream clients.
Again, you need a compatible client to use the new 320MHz channel width. Existing clients will connect using 160MHz at best. In reality, the 160MHz will likely be the realistic sweet-spot bandwidth of Wi-Fi 7, just like the 80MHz in the case of Wi-Fi 6.
2. The 4K-QAM
QAM, short for quadrature amplitude modulation, is a way to manipulate the radio wave to pack more information in the Hertz.
Wi-Fi 6 supports 1024-QAM, which itself is already impressive. However, Wi-Fi 7 will have four times that, or 4096-QAM. Greater QAM means better performance for the same channel width.
As a result, Wi-Fi 7 will have a much higher speed and efficiency than previous standards when working with supported clients.
Wi-F 7 vs Wi-Fi 6/6E: The realistic real-world speeds
With the support for the wider channel width and higher QAM, Wi-Fi 7 is set to be much faster than previous standards on paper.
Vendors will continue to combine the theoretical bandwidth of a broadcaster’s all bands into a single colossal number — such as BE19000, BE22000, or BE33000 — which is great for advertising. Like always, these numbers don’t mean much.
In reality, until the MLO feature below is available, a Wi-Fi connection generally happens on a single band at a time — that’s always true for Wi-Fi 6E and older clients — and is limited by the client.
The table below summarizes what you can expect from Wi-Fi 7’s real-world organic performance compared to Wi-Fi 6E when working on the 6GHz.
|Wi-Fi 6E||Wi-Fi 7|
|Max Channel Bandwidth|
|Number of Available Channels||7x 160MHz or 14x 80MHz channels||3x 320MHz or 6x 160MHz channels|
|Max Number |
of Spatial Streams
(theoretical on paper / commercially implemented)
|8 / 4||16 / 8 (estimate)|
|1.2Gbps (at 160MHz)|
600Mbps (at 80MHz)
|≈ 2.9Gbps (at 320MHz)|
≈ 1.45Gbps (at 160MHz)
|Max Band Bandwidth|
(theoretical on paper)
|Commercial Max Band Bandwidth Per Band|
|Available Max Real-word Negotiated Speeds(*)||2.4Gbps (via a 2×2 160MHz client)|
1.2Gbps (via a 2×2 80MHzclient)
|≈ 11.5Gbps (via a 4×4 320MHz client)|
≈ 5.8Gbps (via a 2×2 320MHz client or a 4×4 160MHz client)
≈ 2.9Gbps (via a single stream 320MHz client or a 2×2 160MHz client)
≈ 1.45Gbps (via a single stream 160MHz client or a 2×2 80MHz client)
(*) The actual negotiated speed depends on the client, Wi-Fi 7 specs, and environment. Real-world sustained rates are generally much lower than negotiated speeds. Wi-Fi 6/6E has had only 2×2 clients. Wi-Fi 7 will also use 2×2 clients primarily, but it might have 4×4 and even single-stream (1×1) clients.
Considering the 2×2 implementation and the sweet-spot 160MHz channel width, generally, it’s safe to conservatively expect real-world rates of the mainstream Wi-Fi 7 (160MHz) to be about 20% faster than top-tier Wi-Fi 6E (160MHz).
3. Multi-Link Operation
Multi-Link Operation, or MLO, is the most exciting and promising feature of Wi-Fi 7 that changes the norm of Wi-Fi: Up to Wi-Fi 6E, a Wi-Fi connection between two direct devices occurs in a single band, using a fixed channel at a time.
Details are still sketchy, but in a nutshell, MLO is Wi-Fi band aggregation. Like Link Aggregation (or bonding) in wired networking, MLO allows combining two Wi-Fi bands, mostly 5GHz and 6GHz, into a single Wi-Fi network (SSID) and connection.
The bonded link delivers higher bandwidth and reliability. How much higher? That’s still to be determined, but chances are it can’t exceed the specs of a client. So an MLO connection is likely to deliver the same bandwidth — dependent on the channel width and number of streams — as an organic connection, but using the spectrum unavailable previously.
Generally, MLO will help increase the efficiency of Wi-Fi 7’s range, allowing a broadcaster to deliver faster speed over longer distances than previous standards.
It can be a game-changer in a wireless mesh network by fortifying the wireless link between broadcasters — the backhaul — both in terms of speed and reliability. While that doesn’t apply to systems with wired backhauling, MLO can make seamless handoff (or roaming) truly seamless.
On top of that, MLO allows each band to intelligently pick the best channel and channel width in real-time — it can channel-hop, just like Bluetooth, though likely less frequently.
For clients, in more ways than one, MLO is the best alternative to the existing so-called “Smart Connect” — using the same SSID (network name) and password for all the bands of a broadcaster — which doesn’t always work as smartly as expected.
But MLO is not all perfect — a few things to keep in mind:
- MLO only works with supported Wi-Fi 7 clients. Some Wi-Fi 7 clients might not support it.
- Wi-Fi 6E and older clients will still use a single band at a time when connecting to a MLO SSID. (As mentioned, a computer needs to run at least Windows 11 version 24H2, set to release in late 2024, to support MLO.)
- MLO requires the WPA3 encryption method and generally won’t work with Wi-Fi 5 or older clients.
- The reach of the combined link (of 5GHz and 6GHz) has a range as far as that of the shorter band.
By default, the 6GHz band has just about 75% of the range of the 5GHz when the same broadcasting power is applied. That said, MLO can only be truly meaningful with the help of Wi-Fi 7’s next feature, Automated Frequency Coordination.
4. Automated Frequency Coordination
Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) applies only to the 6GHz band, which is the fastest yet the shortest range compared to the 5GHz and 2.4GHz. AFC is an optional feature, it’s not required for the general function of a Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster.
At any given time, there can be existing applications already using the spectrum. For example, fixed satellite services (FSS) or broadcast companies might have already had called dibs on certain parts of the 6GHz band. A new Wi-Fi broadcaster must not impact those existing services — a concept similar to DFS channels in Wi-Fi 6 and 5.
That’s when the AFC feature comes into play. The idea is that all new 6GHz broadcasters check with a registered database in real-time to confirm their operation will not negatively impact other registered members. Once that’s established, the broadcaster creates a dynamically exclusive environment in which its 6GHz band can operate without the constraint of regulations like the case of Wi-Fi 6E and older standards.
Specifically, the support for AFC means each Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster can use more broadcasting power and better flexible antenna designs. How much more? That depends.
But it’s estimated that AFC can bring the broadcasting power up to 36 dBm (from the current 30 dBm max) or 4 watts (from 1 wat). The goal of AFC, at least initially, is to bring the 6GHz band’s range to be comparable with the 5GHz band — about 25% more.
When that happens, the MLO feature above will be truly powerful. But even then, Wi-Fi 7’s range will remain the same as that of Wi-Fi 6. Its improvement is that its 6GHz band now has a longer reach than in Wi-Fi 6E.
Before you get all excited, this feature requires certification, and its availability is expected to vary from one region to another. It likely won’t be available in the US before late 2024.
All hardware released before that is said to be capable of handling AFC, which, when applicable, can be turned on via firmware updates.
A crude AFC analogy
Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) is like checking with the local authorities for permission to close off sections of city streets for a drag race block party.
When approved, the usual traffic and parking laws no longer apply to the area, and the organizers can determine how fast traffic can flow, etc.
Wi-Fi 7’s other improvements
On top of that, Wi-Fi 7 will also have other improvements, including support for Flexible Channel Utilization (FCU) and Multi-RU.
With FCU, Wi-Fi 7 handles interference more gracefully by slicing off the portion of a channel with interference, 20MHz at a time, and keeps the clean part usable, as opposed to the case of Wi-Fi 6/6E, when there’s interference, an entire channel can be taken out of commission. FCU is the behind-the-scene technology that increases the efficiency of Wi-Fi, similar to the case of MU-MIMO and OFDMA.
Similarly, with Wi-Fi 6/6E, each device can only send or receive frames on an assigned resource unit (RU), which signiﬁcantly limits the ﬂexibility of the spectrum resource scheduling. Wi-Fi 7 allows multiple RUs to be assigned to a single device and can combine RUs for increased transmission efficiency.
Options/Theoretical Speed per Stream
|Top Real-World Client Streams|
|802.11b||1999||20MHz/11Mbps||Single-stream or 1×1||Open |
|802.11g||2003||20 MHz/54Mbps||1×1||Open |
|Quad-stream or 4×4|
|60 GHz||Limited Use|
|Dual-stream or 2×2|
|still in draft|
|still in draft|
(85Mbps to 150Mbps)
Wi-Fi 7 combines the fragmentations in Wi-Fi 6 and 6E to form a uniform wireless approach that delivers faster speeds and more reliable connectivity.
Collectively, the new standard promises improvements in all aspects of Wi-Fi, including throughputs, connection quality, and range. Finally, we might have a Wi-Fi connection that can sustain true multi-Gigabit speeds, fast enough to deliver 10Gbps Internet.
However, it’s important to keep the following in mind:
- Wi-Fi 7’s improvements apply only to supported clients, those with the 6GHz band.
- Wi-Fi 6 and most Wi-Fi 5 devices generally get nothing extra from the new standard other than the possibly better coverage via a stronger backhaul link of a fully wireless Wi-Fi 7 mesh system.
- Legacy clients, including some Wi-Fi 5 and all Wi-Fi 4 and older, will no longer be fully supported by Wi-Fi 7 broadcasters due to the higher security requirements (WPA2 or WP3). (The 6GHz band always requires WPA3)
- Wi-Fi 7 won’t offer all of its features until ratified, which is likely in late 2024.
Wi-Fi 7 has materialized gradually, with the real-world performance expected to be significantly worse than the hype, and the use of mix-standard hardware will continue to be commonplace — it will be at least a decade before existing Wi-Fi 5 and older clients are no longer in use.
Come to think about it, it’s been years since Wi-Fi 6 became commercially available, yet today, we still don’t even have clients faster than dual-stream (2×2), and Wi-Fi 5 clients are still commonplace. And don’t get me started on Wi-Fi 6E.
As a rule, waiting for the latest and greatest is never a good idea. When it comes to getting connected, the availability of the connectivity needed is always more important than the connection method.
The point is that you should buy a Wi-Fi solution that best fits your needs today. Wi-Fi 7 is just one of the options, and for how much it costs and its current draft status, it’s still far from the best of what it can potentially be.