Qualcomm Reveals First 802.11ay Wi-Fi Chipsets

Qualcomm announced what it called the industry's first chipsets for the 802.11ay wireless protocol. Unlike existing protocols, which rely on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, 802.11ay uses a 60GHz band that promises to offer increased wireless capacity and speeds while also reducing latency. That could allow these new chipsets to offer significant performance improvements to VR headsets, Internet of Things products, and other devices.

These first chipsets arrived in pairs: Qualcomm said QCA6438 and QCA6428 are "for infrastructure and fixed wireless access" while QCA6421 and QCA6431 are "for mobile applications." The chipsets purportedly offer "wire-equivalent latencies" that Qualcomm believes will enable things like 4K streaming, "truly immersive wireless virtual and augmented reality experiences," and other "exciting gaming and entertainment experiences."

Not that 802.11ay will only be used in the home. Facebook plans to use the first pair of Qualcomm's chipsets, QCA6438 and QCA6428, for the Terragraph project it established in 2016. The companies announced in May that Terragraph wanted to use 802.11ay (and 802.11ad) to offer more reliable high-speed internet access to urban areas. They also claimed rolling out these networks would be significantly cheaper than installing fiber.

But those connections might not come without serious privacy implications. Qualcomm explained in its press release:

"Signature attributes of 60GHz Wi-Fi go far beyond high performance throughput, as Qualcomm Technologies’ new chipsets enable unique, always-on ambient Wi-Fi sensing capabilities, enabling devices to identify people, objects, movements and precise location without being affected by light conditions. Networking and mobile devices alike can take advantage of these new Wi-Fi sensing features to provide new and differentiated experiences to end users."

There's no doubt that collecting this information could enable unique experiences that people would like. So does letting third-party app developers scan your email. But it's not hard to guess why a company like Facebook, whose empire depends on its ability to collect and sell information about pretty much everyone who uses the internet, might want to popularize a network technology capable of gathering so much personal data.

Other companies, including Asus, have already expressed their interest in 60GHz wireless technologies. It's too appealing not to--as people start to expect better performance, whether it's via faster connections or improved battery life, upgrading to new wireless technologies will become increasingly critical. (We certainly wouldn't mind "wire-equivalent latencies" so we could stop running Ethernet cables to our gaming setup.)

Qualcomm said its new chipsets are available now, which means products bearing them shouldn't take too long to arrive. That just leaves one important question: How will the Wi-Fi Alliance brand 802.11ay? The group announced earlier this month that various wireless protocols would soon be branded as Wi-Fi 5, 6, and so on to help people differentiate between them. Here's to hoping 802.11ay gets the same treatment; it's going to be hard to convince people it's significantly better than other protocols if they can't figure out what they're working with in the first place.