Meet Li-Fi: 100 Times Faster Internet Than Wi-Fi!

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What if every light bulb in the world could also transmit data?

Since 2011, Mobile communications professor Harald Haas from University of Edinburgh has been working on his theory that the data could be transmitted via the visible light spectrum, using LED light bulbs in homes.

Now the technology known as Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) is a reality and it reportedly produces a connection that is up to 100 times faster than WiFi.

Li-Fi is essentially the same as Wi-Fi, except for a small difference—it uses LED lights around us to transmit the data wirelessly as opposed to using radio.

Li-Fi transmits data using LED lights, which flicker on and off within nanoseconds, imperceptible to the human eye.  When Haas first started looking at alternative wireless systems, LED bulbs were becoming more widespread in homes, thanks to their energy savings over traditional incandescent bulbs. LED bulbs are controlled by a driver, which can rapidly dim the light or turn it on or off.

Therefore Haas figured, data could be encoded in subtle shifts of the light’s brightness, shifts imperceptible to the human eye.

Haas previously proved a single LED light has the capability to transmit more data than an entire tower of cellular power. For the layman use, this means that downloading an HD movie would take only a few seconds.

Could Li-Fi takeover from Wi-Fi?

Traditional Wi-Fi uses radio signals to transmit data to devices, such as phones and laptops. Currently, Wi-Fi carries about half of the world’s internet transmissions. This percentage is expected to grow in coming years as more people get online and as the “Internet of Things” (objects with internet connectivity, from remotely programmable coffee makers to smart cars) expands. Some experts, including Haas, worry that this will create a so-called “spectrum crunch,” where Wi-Fi networks slow under heavy demand.

“Radio spectrum is not sufficient,” Haas says. “It’s heavily used, it’s very crowded…we see that when we go to airports and hotels, where many people want to access the mobile internet and it’s terribly slow. I saw this coming 12, 15 years ago, so I thought ‘what are better ways of transmitting data wirelessly?’”

Li-Fi uses visible light communication like the 'digital equivalent of Morse code,' so it cannot pass through walls. This gives it the potential to create a faster network, with less interference.

Li-Fi stands to be much faster than Wi-Fi. In recent experiments, researchers have been able to reach Li-Fi speeds as fast as 224 gigabits per second. At these speeds, a person could download nearly 20 full-length movies in a single second. 

According to Haas's research, Li-Fi can achieve data density 1,000 times greater than Wi-Fi, because Li-Fi signals are contained in a small area, as opposed to the more diffuse radio signals.

The idea of transmitting data through the visible light spectrum is not new.

Alexander Graham Bell transmitted sound via a beam of sunlight in 1880 using a photophone, a sort of solar-powered wireless telephone. 

Today, light is already used to transmit data across fiber optic networks at high speed. However, transmitting information by beaming light through the air is more difficult, because there is no ‘light tunnel’ to guide the signal to where it needs to go.

Li-Fi system uses visible light communication (VLC), between 400 and 800 terahertz (THz) generated by light bulbs to transmit messages in binary code, but operates at speeds that are too high to be detected by the naked eye.

Unlike Wi-Fi signals which can penetrate walls, Li-Fi is based on light, therefore potentially more secure from external sniffing.

In addition to being faster than Wi-Fi, Li-Fi will be more secure, Haas says. While Wi-Fi signals can pass through walls (allowing your neighbors to “share” your connection), home Li-Fi signals can be kept indoors by drawing the curtains. 

The system wouldn’t mean having to keep your lights on all the time either, Haas says—bulbs could be dimmed to such a point that they appear off, but still transmit data.

Instead of replacing Wi-Fi altogether in the years to come, researchers are working on retrofitting current devices to be Li-Fi compatible.

The system isn't likely to replace Wi-Fi entirely in the years to come, and ripping out the existing infrastructure isn't feasible. But the two could be used in partnership to create faster and safer networks.

Dutch medical equipment and lighting group Philips is reportedly interested in the technology and Apple may integrate it in its next smartphones, according to tech media.

With analysts predicting the number of objects that are connected to the internet soaring to 50 billion by 2020 according to Cisco, and the spectrum of radio waves used by wi-fi in short supply, li-fi offers a viable alternative, according to its promoters.

"We are going to connect our coffee machine, our washing machine, our toothbrush," founder and head of Oledcomm Suat Topsu said.

"But you can't have more than ten objects connected in Bluetooth or wi-fi without interference."

What Li-Fi can contribute to IoT?

Internet of Things (IoT), is the internetworking of physical devices, vehicles (also referred to as "smart devices"), buildings and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data.

Today, IoT is in a position to monitor everyday aspects of life such as water, electricity, garbage, traffic, wind speed, temperature, and air quality, among others. This technology is said to have numerous nodes and each node is expected to be wireless. This, in fact, poses incredible opportunities for businesses that can adapt and make good use of the emerging connectivity.

This is exactly where Light Fidelity finds its apt place. Li-Fi can provide greater wireless capacity using the energy we spend on everyday lighting. It will allow greater connectivity using slightly more power while satisfying internet users’ demands for more wireless data. IoT will eventually connect lots of objects and ‘things’ (mugs, clothes, toothbrushes, lawnmowers) to the internet. If these objects are fitted with small LEDs then they’ll be able to interact with humans and other objects more easily.

Now, Li-Fi may not be a far off reality...

Deepak Solanki, the founder and chief executive of Estonian firm Velmenni which tested Li-Fi in an industrial space last year, told AFP he expected that 'two years down the line the technology can be commercialized and people can see its use at different levels.'

Still, it's unclear whether Li-Fi will push Wi-Fi aside in the years to come.

'It is still a laboratory technology,' Frederic Sarrat, an analyst and consultancy firm PwC, told AFP.

Wi-Fi may continue to evolve and improve its own capabilities, and this could determine how the role of Li-Fi factors in, according to Gartner chief analyst Jim Tully.

Haas also set up a company called pureLiFi which began selling its first products late last year.

The company has been relatively quick to market. However, the scope and ambition of pureLiFi seems to pale in comparison to the likes of other companies around the globe which have been competing to build and develop this technology. Big names like Franhofer Telecommunications in Germany as well as Disney and NASA in the USA are all working on the technology and its applications.

NASA is working with a pioneering company called LVX System to apply the technology to space flight. On their website, LVX  System claims that they are the first to patent the Li-Fi technology. And they offer to install VLC products in public and private buildings.

For their part, Disney is interested in how these technologies can be applied to toys. If Disney could embed LEDs into their stuffed toys, for example, then children could control them via the internet.

The Li-Fi industry is projected to grow to over $9 billion by 2020. Designers who can create a knockout Li-Fi enabled product here in the UK will be handsomely rewarded.

What do you think about the features Li-Fi technology promise? Do they sound realistic to you?

It sounds amazing. Can't wait to replace my router with li-fi light bulbs!
Sounds more like a laboratory technology. There is no way it will be available in 2018 as promised.
I am okay with the quality and the speed of my current connectivity.
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