What is 802.11ay and what could it mean for the iPhone

This ultra-fast, short-range wireless technology is good for very specific uses.

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According to a recent rumor reported by Mac Otakara, the iPhone 12 set for release this fall will include 802.11ay wireless technology. It’s a super-fast, short-range wireless tech that has fairly limited uses, but it could be an exciting addition to Apple’s mobile lineup. Like Ultra Wideband in the iPhone 11, it’s a tech that may not be fully exploited at first, but could bring new capabilities down the road.

Here’s what you need to know about 802.11ay and how it may be used in the future iPhones.

WiGig version 2

About 10 years ago, the Wireless Gigabit Alliance (a group of companies including Apple, Intel, AMD, Broadcomm, Qualcomm, and others) got together to build a standard spec for wireless communication over the 60GHz frequency band. They called it WiGig because it offered gigabit speeds, but it’s official IEEE designation is 802.11ad.

For reference, regular Wi-Fi operates in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency ranges (and soon, 6GHz). The higher frequency of WiGig means shorter ranges and the inability to penetrate walls, but much faster speeds (up to 7 gigabits per second). If that sounds to you like the millimeter-wave part of the 5G spec, you’re right—it’s a similar frequency, with similar shortcomings and benefits.

The really high speed and low latency make WiGig appropriate for a few applications, but it has never really caught on. You’ll find in the wireless adapter for the Vive VR headset, for example, but it’s not like millions of people are using WiGig-equipped laptops or phones.

802.11ay is the second coming of WiGig. Finally ratified in 2019, it’s a big enhancement to the WiGig protocol that still uses the 60GHz frequency range, but should travel further and provide a lot more bandwidth. One stream is up to 44 gigabits per second, and you could bond 4 streams for a total of 176 gigabits per second. That’s about as fast as HDMI 2.1 for one stream! Of course, real-world performance will be much lower, but it’s still a dramatic improvement over the Wi-Fi you’re used to.

Like the first-generation WiGig, this new second-gen WiGig is super low latency and should have no trouble transmitting within a room, but won’t go through walls or other solid objects very well. Think of it as super-fast, super-local Wi-Fi.

WiGig on an iPhone?

Is it possible that we’ll see 802.11ay on the iPhone 12? Sure...Qualcomm announced mobile solutions for 802.11ay back in 2018 (these announcement always happen long before they show up in products). As part of Apple’s settlement with Qualcomm, they have a multi-year chipset licensing agreement with the company. And if Apple’s building the iPhone 12 with a millimeter-wave antenna for 5G anyway, it makes some sense that it could work for WiGig, too.

In other words, the tech is there, if Apple wants to go that route. The question is: why? What benefit could we get from 802.11ay in an iPhone?

linksys dual band mesh router mr9600 Linksys

802.11ay isn’t going to be in your average home router anytime soon. You’ll find 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) instead.

We shouldn’t expect to get on the internet with 802.11ay connections anytime soon. Wi-Fi routers are avoiding the standard, instead opting for 802.11ax (also called Wi-Fi 6); a similar tech that operates at regular Wi-Fi frequencies and isn’t as fast, but can at least cover your whole house. 802.11ax is already supported by the iPhone 11 and is available on high-end home routers.

The point of putting 802.11ay in an iPhone would be to make direct, local, point-to-point connections with other 802.11ay devices. Specifically, other iPhone 12 (or later) phones or...other future Apple stuff.

Connecting to another iPhone via 802.11ay wouldn’t be a very big deal. It would make AirDrop really fast—like blink-and-you’ll-miss-it transfer speeds. But most people just send photos and short videos with AirDrop and it’s already surprisingly fast.

Apple may build 802.11ay into future Macs, making AirDrop between them faster as well, and making iPhone-to-Mac syncing and backup via wireless as fast or faster than a USB cable. Again, that’s nice, but it’s not really a game-changer. It’s not going to sell iPhones.

apple ar glasses patent illo Apple

Apple has several AR and VR related patents, but they don’t describe anything as specific as an 802.11ay connection to a phone.

The exciting part of 802.11ay is that it provides high enough bandwidth and low enough latency that it can be used to send data to high-resolution, high refresh rate displays. Like, say, virtual reality or augmented reality headsets.

Apple has long been rumored to be working on a headset or eyewear that does at least AR, maybe mixed AR and VR. All the processing for your AR/VR experience could happen in the headset itself, making it a completely standalone product, but doing so makes it bigger, heavier, more expensive, and shortens battery life. The alternative is to make the headset a relatively dumb set of displays and cameras, with all the processing happening on some sort of base station—like your new iPhone 12. An ultra-high speed, super low-latency connection like that provided by 802.11ay is a necessity to make that work. Apple could always use a physical tether between phone and headset, but...ew.

Does 802.11ay mean iPhone-driven AR or VR?

It’s definitely a leap to look at the possible, rumored, not-yet-confirmed existence of 802.11ay in the iPhone 12 and surmise that Apple’s plans for AR or VR involve using the new iPhone as a control and processing unit for a relatively affordable headset or eyewear. We don’t even know if the new iPhones really will support this second-gen WiGig; let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.

But it’s an intriguing idea because the technology has no other obvious use. It would improve features like AirDrop or AirPlay if Apple brings 802.11ay to lots of its other devices, but neither of those are really hamstrung by current Wi-Fi technology. Apple’s always got something new up its sleeves, and while AR/VR seems like the most likely use of 802.11ay, we’d be foolish to think Apple might not have other ideas.

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