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We're still getting acquainted with Wi-Fi 6, the new, faster wireless standard that came to market earlier this year. But just as soon as one standard arrives, the next is being developed, and the next generation of Wi-Fi is already starting to take shape as Wi-Fi 7.
Wi-Fi 6, the easy-to-understand official name of the 802.11ax standard, started appearing in routers earlier this year, and several announced Wi-Fi 6 networking products are only now coming out. The standard is even less prominent in other consumer devices, as laptops and smartphones have only just started using it. You'll find Wi-Fi 6 capability in the Samsung Galaxy S10, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and the Apple iPhone 11, but we're still waiting for other manufacturers to catch up.
If you're not up to speed on the new naming conventions, the previous mainstream Wi-Fi standards have been retroactively renamed, with 802.11n and 802.11ac becoming Wi-Fi 4 and 5, respectively. Here's a handy chart to help you navigate the name change, but if you're still confused, check out our guide to Wi-Fi 6.
With speeds as high as 30 gigabits per second, the next generation of Wi-Fi promises better streaming video, longer range and fewer problems with traffic congestion. The change will come in a series of steps, beginning with improvements to Wi-Fi 6, that lay the groundwork for the expected arrival of Wi-Fi 7 in 2024.
✔ Wi-Fi 4: 802.11n
✔Wi-Fi 5: 802.11ac
✔Wi-Fi 6: 802.11ax
✔Wi-Fi 7: 802.11be
That's a long way of saying that Wi-Fi 6 has only just arrived, and it will be the dominant wireless standard for the next several years. But that doesn't mean it's the be-all and end-all of connectivity, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) – the group that develops and defines versions of the 802.11 standard – is already hard at work figuring out what Wi-Fi 7 will look like.
The IEEE formed a study group and started work on the 802.11be Extremely High Throughput (EHT) project late last year, with the goal of establishing what the next evolution of Wi-Fi will look like. As the name would suggest, one goal of the new standard is a dramatic increase in throughput, bringing Gigabit-Ethernet speeds to multiple devices in the home.
As the IEEE drafts standards for the new technology, the capabilities and features of tomorrow's Wi-Fi have started to take shape. Some of the highlights of the upcoming standard include speeds of up to 30 gigabits per second, up to 16 spatial streams for handling dozens of devices, and an array of technical refinements to deliver capabilities that will blow away today's best routers.
The collection of features and technologies being developed will likely combine to become Wi-Fi 7 once the standard has developed enough to be certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Though the standard is far from final in these early days of development, the initial details present a picture of significant advancement over present Wi-Fi capabilities. Among the features discussed is a move to 320-MHz bandwidth and significantly more efficient use of noncontiguous spectrum, opening the floodgates for data to handle gigabit speeds to multiple devices in the home.
Multiband and multichannel operation will let devices connect over more than one wireless band, allowing a tri-band router to combine multiple connections to feed devices data. With 4K video streaming and online gaming chewing through more home data than ever before, and connected home devices nibbling at your connection throughout the day, the need for a more robust Wi-Fi solution is already here, and the need will only continue to grow.
With up to 16 spatial streams – a big step forward from the 12 streams offered on the best routers today – and improved MU-MIMO capabilities, a Wi-Fi 7 router would be better equipped to handle the many devices that fill today's connected homes, offering greater multiple-device management and higher bandwidth for each.
The first Wi-Fi 7 chipsets will be available for testing in 2021, but it will take longer for manufacturers to explore the capabilities, refine the features and design the products built around the new standard. All told, the technology isn't likely to reach consumers until 2024.