One of the key problems with the popular wireless standards of today is that they either have very limited bandwidth (e.g. Bluetooth), or they’re subject to inconsistent performance due to interference and congestion (e.g. Wi-Fi). There are however newer standards emerging that aim to solve both of these problems for short-range communication between devices, and it looks like this year’s iPhone lineup could be adopting one of them.
According to Japanese blog Mac Otakara, Apple is considering adding new “802.11ay” Wi-Fi technology to the iPhone 12 this year, and although the report doesn’t really specify what Apple would use it for, a couple of possibilities readily come to mind.
802.11ay is a new “ultra-short range” standard that offers extremely fast wireless transfer speeds thanks to its use of the 60GHz frequency band. As with all wireless standards, higher frequencies offer greater bandwidth but provide shorter range and don’t penetrate obstacles like walls nearly as well as lower frequencies. This is already a major distinction between older 2.4GHz Wi-Fi used by the 802.11b/g/n standards and the new 5GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi systems, and why most home routers and Wi-Fi devices still support both bands.
In fact, 802.11ay grew out of the 802.11ad standard—also known as WiGig—that was drafted a few years ago to provide higher-speed access. Although there are a few 802.11ad routers available, like Netgear’s Nighthawk X10, which can provide blazing fast 7.2Gbps speeds, the standard never really took off since it was limited to ranges of about 30 feet. It was instead superseded by Wi-Fi 6—already available on the iPhone 11 models—which spreads signals across the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands to improve performance without sacrificing range.
However, all was not lost from the 802.11ad spec, and the engineers behind it decided to focus instead on making it into a viable ultra-short range protocol, quadrupling the frequency bandwidth and offering throughput speeds of up to 176Gbps thanks to its use of four streams, and 802.11ay was born as “WiGig 2.0.”
Right out of the gate, this seems like it would be a great way to improve the transfer speeds of AirDrop, which currently relies on a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-FI, and can sometimes be a bit sluggish when there are a lot of other Wi-Fi devices nearby. Since the 60GHz band is much cleaner than the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, it would be possible for 4K videos to be exchanged between two 802.11ay iPhones in a matter of seconds.
Apple has already shown a willingness to use AirDrop as a way to introduce its newer technologies; last year’s iPhone 11 lineup added a new ultra wide band (UWB) chip that will undoubtedly be used for Apple’s AirTags and features like indoor navigation, but for now it’s only used to direct AirDrop transfers between two iPhones.
Paving the Way for an AR Headset
In the same way that UWB is paving the way for AirTags, however, the addition of 802.11ay would undoubtedly be the first step to Apple’s long-rumoured AR headset, which would definitely need a high-speed connection to its companion iPhone in order to reach its full potential.
In fact, we first heard a report back in 2018 that Apple was working on a “mixed-reality” headset with 8K displays and “wire-free” AR/VR. The inside source for the report told CNET at the time that Apple was already working on incorporating 802.11ay into its AR headset, which would be almost a necessity if it wanted to reliably stream 8K video from an iPhone, and of course the ultra-short range wouldn’t be a problem for a Wi-Fi connection that only needs to make it from a user’s pocket to their head. The inclusion of 802.11ay in this year’s iPhones would be a good indication that the new headset is coming soon.
Of course, support for 802.11ay would also allow the iPhone 12 to interface with other upcoming 802.11ay accessories, of which there are sure to be many once the new draft standard gets finalized, which is expected to happen by later this year.