Light Speed Internet

Cast off those buffering blues, household light bulbs could soon be used to transmit Internet speeds that are 100 times faster than standard Wi-Fi.

Li-Fi, which is short for light fidelity, is a mind-bending bit of technology that is widely accepted to have been the brainchild of Herald Hass, a professor of mobile communications at the University of Edinburgh.

Back in 2011, he found that standard LED light bulbs could be tweaked to transmit Internet signals at astonishingly fast speeds. Under some tests, it even reached up to 224 gigabits per second. The technology uses visible light between 400 and 800 terahertz (THz), and transmits messages through binary code, which can’t be seen by the naked eye.

This holds the potential to revolutionize what we can do with the Internet usage.

The technology is also being referred to as Visible Light Communication (VLC), which means the device has to be directly in contact with light. This means that Li-Fi, unlike Wi-Fi, can’t pass through walls. Some see this as a limitation, as visible light is easily blocked and therefore the data transfer could be interrupted; which means it works best for point-to-point line of sight transmissions in a clear space.

However, proponents of Li-Fi suggest we should view it as a digital equivalent to Morse code. Not only will it be massively faster, Li-Fi will also be safer to use than Wi-Fi because it’s contained in a certain space and maintains the privacy of data transmission. It will also have less interference and the ability to serve more devices. What’s more, it doesn’t use radio waves like Wi-Fi and isn’t limited by the crowding occurring in frequencies worldwide.

The potential uses for Li-Fi are huge. It could be ideal for hospitals because it doesn’t interfere with medical systems. It could work well in museums, to provide information for objects under a spot-light.

Already, Philips is looking into Li-Fi for its medical equipment and lighting groups, while Apple is considering integrating it in the upcoming iPhone 7, as evidenced by iOS code in the iOS9.1 firmware.

Several startups have also emerged in the Li-Fi space, such as French company Oledcomm which has demonstrated at exhibitions the capabilities of Li-Fi using only an office lamp claiming that Li-Fi is fast enough to download the equivalent of 23 DVDs in one second. Another company, Velmenni from Estonia, which has tested Li-Fi in an industrial space, expects the technology to be fully commercialized in two years.

The technology has been successfully tested in Belgium, Estonia, and India. Recently, the UAE government announced that Li-Fi will be applied on Dubai highways, as part of the aim to make it the world’s smartest city.

But the first mover to actually introduce Li-Fi products to the market is Pure Li-Fi, a company created by Professor Haas and his team, which offers a ceiling unit made of an LED light fixture and a desktop unit which connects a device via USB. The company claims to be offering a ‘plug-and-play’ application for secure wireless access. Haas says his aim is to “combine illumination with wireless data transmission, to make for a cleaner and brighter future.”

If, as analysts predict, every appliance and device will become Internet-connected in the IoT future, we will realize the limitations and interference resulting from having more than 10 objects connected through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi simultaneously.

Still, it’s unclear when we’ll see widespread use of Li-Fi. At this stage, and despite initial efforts to commercialize it, the technology is still considered lab tech.

Going forward, researchers will be looking into ways to retrofit devices with Li-Fi to use both wireless systems together to optimize speed and security. Perhaps Li-Fi capable devices will have to be equipped with a card reader, or a dongle, to work with the technology.

Meanwhile, the capabilities of Wi-Fi shall also continue to evolve, meaning that Li-Fi may never replace it, but rather complement it. The two could be used, in partnership, to create faster and safer networks.