What is Wi-Fi 7? Here’s everything we know about the future standard

It may seem strange to talk about a Wi-Fi 7 standard. The Wi-Fi 6 standard has barely arrived yet — in fact, its final authorized form is still expected to be announced at the end of 2019. Few devices on the market are even ready for it. Wi-Fi 7 is, at the best, still several years away.

But thanks to interviews with Qualcomm’s VP of technology, V.K. Jones, we have some idea of what this future Wi-Fi standard will look like, and what’s exciting about it. As we all start embracing Wi-Fi 6, here’s how wireless networks are going to get even better in the future.

When is it coming?

According to Qualcomm, the release date of Wi-Fi 7 is likely to be 2024, with a lead up of major improvements to the Wi-Fi standard starting in 2020.

Of course, this is partially conjecture. Qualcomm no doubt knows enough to make a good estimate, but the actual date depends on when the Wi-Fi Alliance finalizes the standard and, ultimately, how the technology progresses. It’s safe to say that a mid-2020s date is likely.

Will it be called Wi-Fi 7?

We don’t know yet, but it’s likely. The current standard, 802.11ax, was officially labeled “Wi-Fi 6” because the creators wanted to simplify standard naming and keep people from getting confused between 802.11ax, 802.11ax, and others. So it makes sense to keep this new naming convention and call the next massive standard update Wi-Fi 7.

Qualcomm’s reasoning is that the improvements expected by around 2024 will be enough to warrant the Wi-Fi 7 label. Developers are already referring to it as “802.11be,” although this more technical title has also not been officially given.

Three stages of development

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Wi-Fi 6 has already provided massive increases in speed and great improvements in quality of life, showing speeds two or three times greater than Wi-Fi 5. How can Wi-Fi 7 improve on that? Well, Qualcomm is forecasting three important stages of changes that we can expect, culminating in the release of Wi-Fi 7.

Stage 1 – The 6GHz band

This is more like a big upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, but it paves the way for a lot of exciting stuff. Today’s Wi-Fi devices are authorized to use the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands (some devices use a secondary section of the 5GHz band, which is where terms like “triple-band router” come from). However, government agencies in Europe and the United States are working to authorize sections of the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi use as well, specifically for Wi-Fi 6 and later technologies.

Providing that governments and telecoms can work out the details, the 6GHz band will be excellent for offering high-speed Wi-Fi in spread-out spaces — think stadiums or college campuses. Home routers may become truly tri-band as well. This is expected to begin sometime in 2020.

Stage 2 – Uplink technology

The next big upgrade is expected to bring better uplink capabilities through an advanced form of MU-MIMO that will be called UL MU-MIMO. MU-MIMO creates individual connections with multiple devices at the same time, instead of one connection that rotates between devices very quickly—the result is high-quality connections with fewer problems and better apparent speeds for downloading data. UL MU-MIMO is a secondary upgrade that improves the process of uploading data, completing the back half of MU-MIMO.

Basically, this means that Wi-Fi tech will take another jump in quality, especially when it comes to livestreaming and sharing rich media like videos. It’s expected to work with up to eight simultaneous users at once. Qualcomm has a slideshow that goes into a little more depth if you’re curious. This MU-MIMO upgrade is predicated to happen around 2022.

Stage 3 – The big 802.11be upgrade

Stage 3 is expected to be a larger overhaul worth of a new standard, which the other changes would have laid the proper groundwork for in preceding years. These improvements would make a number of important changes, notably:

  • CMU-MIMO: This is a very ambitious project that essentially allows mesh networking between all kinds of antennas to enable widespread MU-MIMO connections. These antennas could be located anywhere – on other routers, on separate devices, on desktops, etc. They would all work together to manage as many connections as possible. Even Qualcomm admits that there’s a fair chance this technology won’t ultimately be possible, but it would be very cool.
  • Multi-band data management: By this time, the average router will have access to three fully separate bands – 2.4, 5, and 6GHz. This part of 802.11be would allow networks to send data across two or three of these bands simultaneously, but ensuring they all arrive and recombine at their destination. Because of the way data packets work, using multiple bands at once for a transmission could greatly increase Wi-Fi speeds. In fact, some experts are predicting that around this time Wi-Fi could become even faster than wired connections, which is also very ambitious.
  • Better modulation and compression: Each Wi-Fi standard improves how data is sent across radio bands, allowing signals to send more data, faster. This upgrade would be no exception.

Compatible devices

Manufacturers are still preparing to ship devices compatible with Wi-Fi 6. It’s far too early to start talking about Wi-Fi 7 devices when we’re not even sure what the new standard would bring to the table. However, if Qualcomm’s expectations are correct, Wi-Fi 7 could be an even larger change than Wi-Fi 6, and require more hardware upgrades than ever before.

That means not only new routers, but also compatibility with devices such as smartphones and laptops.