As I write this, Apple still does not have Wi-Fi 6E in any of its products. That’s expected to change very soon, but the market is already moving on to the next big thing: Wi-Fi 7. Why should you care about the new standard? Well, everyone likes more bandwidth and lower latency, both of which are core goals of the new standard. But the biggest benefit might be the way it’s designed to smartly overcome congestion and instability, delivering 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 couple of years away from being completed. But hardware makers rarely wait for that–they build early products based on the draft specification, updating their firmware over time to stay in compliance with the final spec. With the first Wi-Fi 7 routers expected to ship later in 2022, it’s worth exploring what the new tech has to offer, and whether or not you should upgrade your equipment yet.
Here’s a simple guide to what’s new in Wi-Fi 7, and predictions about when we might see support for it in 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 peak theoretical bandwidth is 46 gigabits per second. That’s over 5 gigabytes per secon, four times faster than Wi-Fi 6E, and even faster than Thunderbolt 4! But you’ll never get anything close to that in the real world.
Qualcomm says its first Wi-Fi 7 product will get 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 to expect bandwidth up to 2.4x more than Wi-Fi 6.
One of the neat tricks of Wi-Fi 7 is that it breaks down different channels into “resource units” that transmit smaller chunks of data to multiple clients simultaneously, which should really help reduce latency.
Wi-Fi 7: Smarter frequency use, less congestion
More “bits per second” is fine for bragging rights on the box, but what people really want is a Wi-Fi network that connects dozens of devices–laptops, phones, game consoles, smart TVs, smart home appliances, and other IoT stuff–all at once without running into problems. Network congestion and contention around different frequencies is a growing problem, and it’s exactly the sort of thing Wi-Fi 7 is made to solve.
Current Wi-Fi 6 or 6E routers may promise “dual-band” or “tri-band” operation, and say 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 stuck to one frequency. If the channels at 5GHz are full, or the signal is weak, your phone might connect to the 2GHz band, and then it’s stuck there until you disconnect and reconnect.
Wi-Fi 7 is designed to gang up all three frequency bands and all available channels and send packets to any Wi-Fi 7 client device on whatever frequency and channel is best at the moment. And it can dynamically change over time. So as channels get congested because a big download starts on your game console, other devices might just start seamlessly getting their data on other frequencies without missing a beat.
This ability to dynamically use all frequencies and channels that are available at once to each client is a huge step forward. It should greatly reduce the effects of interference and network congestion, making connections more reliable and reducing latency.
Wi-Fi 7: When are the routers coming?
Of course, you don’t get the benefits of Wi-Fi 7 unless you upgrade both your router or access point and your client (phone, tablet, game console, whatever). Naturally, Wi-Fi 7 stuff will be backwards compatible. You can connect Wi-Fi 6 or 5 or even 4 stuff to a Wi-Fi 7 router just fine, and vice versa. But you won’t get all these new benefits unless you have Wi-Fi 7 on both ends.
The IEEE isn’t expected to have a final 802.11be spec until sometime in 2024. But companies aren’t going to wait for that. Just as they did with Wi-Fi 5, and 6, and 6E, the companies that makes Wi-Fi gear are going to push ahead with products based on the draft specification, which will be upgraded over time with software updates that keep them compliant with newer versions of the spec. This might seem like a sketchy move, but after more than a decade without huge problems, it’s not really worth worrying about.
One of the first commercially available Wi-Fi 7 products will be Qualcomm’s FastConnect 7800, which is made for anything from routers to laptops and VR headsets. The first routers with this chip (or any other Wi-Fi 7 wireless chip) might hit the market around the end of 2022, but early 2023 is more likely. They’ll be expensive. And they almost certainly won’t be worth it for most people.
If you really need to update your router and you are desperate to be future-proof, the first Wi-Fi 7 routers might be worthwhile. But given that you need Wi-Fi 7 products to connect to it in order to really see the benefits, and those are still off in the distance, there shouldn’t be a rush to pay through the nose for it.
Wi-Fi 7: When is it coming to Apple devices?
Apple doesn’t often lag behind on Wi-Fi technology; we’re surprised that the new Macs produced in 2022 don’t have Wi-Fi 6E support. Nobody knows when the first Wi-Fi 7 devices will be available from Apple, but our guess is that we won’t see them until 2024. Wi-Fi 6E is likely to come in new products in the fall of 2022, and Apple may carry through with that throughout 2023. By the second half of 2024, Apple might even be using its own Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth chips instead of those from companies like Broadcom, Skyworks, and Qualcomm.
Since the biggest benefit of Wi-Fi 7 is its ability to send and receive data from a single client across multiple frequencies and channels at once, the greatest benefit is only going to be obvious once 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, a really big deal, it’s not going to change your online world for a few more years yet. Apple jumping on the bandwagon early would be more about future-proofing devices that its users intend to keep for years than providing real practical benefit in the here and now.