Expectation vs. Reality: What to know when it comes to Wi-Fi 7 and upgrading your network

Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E and now Wi-Fi 7. If you’re considering upgrading your home network, you probably think the latest Wi-Fi standard is the obvious way to go. But there’s a lot of conflicting (and often confusing) information on what Wi-Fi 7 can deliver. So, what are the differences between the various iterations and which is right for you? We break down everything you need to know to separate the expectation from the reality:

Q1. I’ve been hearing a lot about Wi-Fi 6, 6E and now 7. What are the differences between them?
The Wi-Fi number refers to the generation, or standard, of the wireless LAN (WLAN) technology. Wi-Fi 7 is the latest standard to be launched.

If you picture Wi-Fi signals as transactions between an access point, like a router, and a device, like a laptop, Wi-Fi 6 compacts more information into one transaction while also delivering the data to more users at the same time. It operates on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz data bands, jumping between the two as needed for better throughput (which is the actual rate at which data is transmitted over a network vs the network speed - which is a theoretical maximum rate). Comparatively, Wi-Fi 5 only uses the 5 GHz frequency band.

Wi-Fi 6 also features Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) technology that lets it divide its bandwidth (or channels) to better respond to different user requirements, enabling your router to communicate with various devices at the same time.

Wi-Fi 6E, however, also accesses a 6 GHz data band, extending the capacity, efficiency, coverage, and performance benefits of Wi-Fi 6.

Wi-Fi 7 operates on the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz bands, like Wi-Fi 6E, but it improves the experience by combining connections across data bands (resulting in faster downloads and enhanced stability), offering more potential bandwidth (faster downloads again) and using more signal modulation workarounds for dealing with congestion – which happens when multiple devices are connected on the same channel. 

Fundamentally, all promise more devices connected on faster networks, with incredible speeds expected for Wi-Fi 7 - but it’s pretty important to understand the realities vs. expectations for each standard. 

Q2. What do you mean by realities vs. expectations? Wi-Fi 7 sounds amazing, from what I hear.
There is no doubt it will be – eventually. Wi-Fi 6E opened up the 6 GHz spectrum for the first time, but there are restrictions in place that limit its performance, as availability of the 6 GHz band varies from country to country across Europe. The EU currently allows Wi-Fi operation in 480 MHz of the 6 GHz (lower) band, while countries including the US, Canada, Brazil, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, have already allocated the full 1.2 GHz of 6 GHz spectrum, and other nations are soon to be following suit. Europe is currently behind when it comes to utilising the full 6 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum. As it stands, we have some time to go before this opens up enough to support Wi-Fi 7 in any meaningful way.

The other challenge is that 90% of connected devices in the home operate on the 2.4 GHz data band. Which begs the question – why upgrade to a Wi-Fi 7 router or mesh system right now?  
Q3. Well, Wi-Fi 7 is the latest standard; surely it makes sense to choose that if I’m looking to upgrade anyway?  
It’s often tempting to invest in a shiny new toy – especially one that appears to be everywhere. The confusion is understandable when it comes to upgrading; if the latest model of a smartphone launches, how likely are you to buy the model before it?  
But in this case, it’s better to wait. It will likely take another few years before most phones, laptops, and other smart devices are actually able to support Wi-Fi 7. By this point, the technology will be much more affordable, and the true benefits of its much-hailed speed will be seen. 

Q4. Ok, I get it. But if not Wi-Fi 7, then what about Wi-Fi 6 and 6E? Does it not make more sense to jump straight to Wi-Fi 7 when it’s available?
You could, but it would be a pricey investment for something you can’t yet benefit from. The reality is that Wi-Fi 7 product launches are jumping ahead of the ability to deliver – much like the way 5G-enabled phones did. I liken it to the movie Field of Dreams and Kevin Costner’s infamous line, “If you build it, they will come.”

The real question you need to ask yourself is, what are your priorities? If a better, more reliable connection is the priority over speed, then you need to consider functionality.
Wi-Fi 6 and 6E are definitely more likely to be experienced the way in which they were intended.

But even with Wi-Fi 6, devices need to be able to connect to it. I mentioned earlier that Wi-Fi 6E uses OFDMA technology, which enables the division of bandwidth to better respond to different user requirements. It’s worth noting that OFDMA isn’t backwards-compatible with older devices, so when a Wi-Fi 6E or 7 router encounters a smart home device that only uses Wi-Fi 4, for example, it meets that device on its own terms, using that standard’s capabilities — so any other device connecting on the channel has to wait in line for the router to finish talking to it, causing sluggish devices. So yes, Wi-Fi 7 can make your smart home smarter, but it won’t until you’ve moved everything to the new standard, which isn’t even available for most devices. 

Q4. But will Wi-Fi 7 actually be faster? 
It definitely will. But what makes it faster, for the most part, is channel bandwidth, or the size of the pipe that data is pushed through it. Wi-Fi 7 doubles the maximum channel bandwidth to 320 MHz, compared to the 160 MHz you might get on good Wi-Fi 6 and 6E routers. A bigger pipe naturally fits more data. However, only the 6 GHz band supports those bigger channels – there just isn’t enough room on the 5 GHz band. So we will need to see the 6 GHz band open up a lot more before we see the speed realise its potential. 

Q5. More speed is always better, though, right?  
The marketing hype will certainly have you believe it. But in reality, only a handful of connected devices in the home benefit from high speeds. It’s worth evaluating what’s actually connected to your network. You’ll find it’s a far broader variety of devices than you may think. And for many of them, speed doesn’t even come into the equation. Take, for example, your smart plug. Does it need more speed? What about your Google Home or Amazon Alexa? Or your video doorbell? If it’s imperceptible to the user in the home, what’s the point? Headline speed isn’t always the solution to enhance or upgrade your connectivity. 

The benefits of Wi-Fi 7 will (eventually) serve AR and VR applications that require high throughput and low latency, deliver higher-quality video, and enhance cloud gaming. But even the latest, popular gaming devices haven’t caught up to the standard. 

Q6. What do you mean?
Remember, you need compatible devices to take advantage of the benefits. The very latest TVs, laptops and Android phones are only now starting to support the Wi-Fi 6E standard. Apple has only just launched Wi-Fi 6E compatibility in their iPhone 15 series, the Xbox Series X will only launch Wi-Fi 6E support in 2024, and the PlayStation 5 only has Wi-Fi 6 support (so if you were looking to speed up gaming lags by upgrading to a Wi-Fi 7 router, you’d be waiting for some time yet).

However, it makes sense to upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router or mesh system, as device compatibility is becoming more ubiquitous. A Wi-Fi 6E router may also be a worthwhile option for you, provided that you’ve evaluated what devices in your home could actually leverage the standard.

But when it comes to Wi-Fi 7, I’d avoid buyer’s remorse and wait until any potential kinks in the hardware can be worked out, the price comes down, and crucially, more devices become compatible with the standard. The real-world application of Wi-Fi 7 is markedly different from what is currently being promised. In time, it will certainly be worthwhile, but right now? Sit tight.