As I write this, Apple still doesn’t have Wi-Fi 6E in any of its products. That’s expected to change soon, but the market is already working on the next big thing: Wi-Fi 7. Why bother with the new standard? Well, everyone likes more bandwidth and lower latency, both core goals of the new standard. But arguably the biggest advantage is the way it’s designed to intelligently overcome congestion and instability and deliver more stable networks that perform better in challenging conditions.
Known in the IEEE standards as 802.11be, the final specification for Wi-Fi 7 is still a few years away from completion. But hardware makers rarely wait for that – they build early products based on the draft spec and update their firmware over time to stay in line with the final specs. With the first Wi-Fi 7 routers expected to ship later in 2022, it’s worth exploring what the new technology has to offer and whether or not you should upgrade your equipment.
Here’s a simple guide to what’s new in Wi-Fi 7 and predictions about when we might see support for it on Apple’s devices.
Wi-Fi 7: more speed, lower latency
Every new Wi-Fi standard seems to offer faster speeds and lower latency, and Wi-Fi 7 is no different. The actual maximum theoretical bandwidth is 46 gigabits per second. That’s over 5 gigabytes per second, four times faster than Wi-Fi 6E and even faster than Thunderbolt 4! But in the real world, you never come close to that.
Qualcomm says its first Wi-Fi 7 product will reach real-world speeds of 5.8 gigabits per second, which is a good 60 percent faster than any Wi-Fi 6E solution the company offers. In a tech demo, MediaTek said it expects bandwidth up to 2.4x more than Wi-Fi 6.
One of the neat tricks of Wi-Fi 7 is that it splits different channels into “resource units” that send smaller amounts of data to multiple clients at once, which should really help reduce latency.
Wi-Fi 7: Smarter frequency usage, less congestion
More “bits per second” is fine to brag on the box, but what people really want is a Wi-Fi network that connects tens devices – laptops, phones, game consoles, smart TVs, smart home appliances, and other IoT stuff – all at once without any hassle. Network congestion and strife around different frequencies is a growing problem, and it’s exactly the sort of thing Wi-Fi 7 is supposed to solve.
Current Wi-Fi 6 or 6E routers can promise “dual-band” or “tri-band” operation, saying they can use the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz frequencies all at once. And this is technically true, but every connection from a device to the access point/router is tied to a frequency. If the channels on 5 GHz are full or the signal is weak, your phone may connect to the 2 GHz band and hang there until you disconnect and reconnect.
Wi-Fi 7 is designed to combine all three frequency bands and all available channels and send packets to any Wi-Fi 7 client device on any frequency and channel that is currently best. And it can dynamically change over time. So if channels get overloaded because a big download starts on your game console, other devices can just seamlessly get their data on other frequencies without missing a beat.
This ability to dynamically use all the frequencies and channels available to each customer at once is a enormous step forward. It should significantly reduce the effects of interference and network congestion, make connections more reliable and reduce latency.
Wi-Fi 7: when are the routers coming?
Of course, you won’t get the benefits of Wi-Fi 7 unless you upgrade both your router and access point and your customer (phone, tablet, game console, whatever). Obviously, Wi-Fi 7 stuff will be backwards compatible. You can connect Wi-Fi 6 or 5 or even 4 things to a Wi-Fi 7 router just fine, and vice versa. But you won’t get all these new benefits until you have Wi-Fi 7 on both sides.
The IEEE is not expected to have a final 802.11be specification until sometime in 2024. But companies are not waiting for that. Just as they did with Wi-Fi 5, and 6, and 6E, the companies that make Wi-Fi equipment will continue with products based on the concept specification, which will be upgraded over time with software updates that ensure that they meet the requirements with newer versions of the spec. This may seem like a sketchy move, but after more than a decade with no major issues, it’s not really worth worrying about.
One of the first commercially available Wi-Fi 7 products is Qualcomm’s FastConnect 7800, which is made for everything from routers to laptops and VR headsets. The first routers with this chip (or any other Wi-Fi 7 wireless chip) may hit the market in late 2022, but early 2023 is more likely. They will be expensive. And for most people, they almost certainly won’t be worth it.
If you really need to update your router and you’re desperate to be future-proof, the first Wi-Fi 7 routers may be worth your while. But since you need Wi-Fi 7 products to connect to them to really see the benefits, and those are still in the distance, there shouldn’t be any rush to pay for them.
Wi-Fi 7: When will it come to Apple devices?
Apple doesn’t often lag behind Wi-Fi technology; we’re surprised that the new Macs produced in 2022 don’t have Wi-Fi 6E support. No one knows when the first Wi-Fi 7 devices will be available from Apple, but our guess is we won’t see them until 2024. Wi-Fi 6E is likely to appear in new products in the fall of 2022, and Apple may push that through into 2023. By the second half of 2024, Apple may even be using its own Wi-Fi, cellular and Bluetooth chips instead of those of its own. companies like Broadcom, Skyworks and Qualcomm.
Since the greatest benefit of Wi-Fi 7 is the ability to send and receive data from a single client across multiple frequencies and channels at once, the greatest benefit will only become apparent if you have multiple Wi-Fi 7-enabled products in your home. That could be 2025, 2026 or later, depending on how often you buy new stuff.
So while Wi-Fi 7 is a big deal, one For real big deal, it won’t change your online world for a few more years. Apple jumping on the bandwagon early on would be more about future-proofing devices its users plan to keep for years to come than about providing real practical benefit in the here and now.