LiFi could flick the switch on traditional WiFi
More people, and more things, are becoming connected. Growing connectivity is certainly a positive thing, but the radio spectrum necessary for data transmission has never been more crowded. Eventually, wireless networks will no longer be able to handle the sheer volume of global users. On top of this, cybersecurity concerns have brought the safety of existing wireless systems into question. How can the limited spectrum cope with an exponential increase in traffic? Will all this data be adequately protected? LiFi, the transmission of data via light, could provide the answer.
Lighting the way to mass connectivity
In 2011, Harald Haas gave a TEDGlobal talk that first discussed the concept of LiFi (Light Fidelity). Eight years later, and the WiFi alternative is finally gaining some visibility. For the most part, LiFi is still in the initial stages of development. That being said, at this year’s CES show, Firefly LiFi claimed that its version of the connective tech had surpassed all other commercially available systems. Other, more established businesses have also taken an interest. Signify, formerly Philips Lighting, was the first lighting company to enable their existing products to transmit data via light. But what makes LiFi so attractive? Ed Huibers, Signify’s Director of Business Development, explains that LiFi comes with four key benefits. The first of these, he says, is simply the provision of an alternative connectivity option. The second is guaranteed bandwidth.
“LiFi provides a stable data rate per user, providing robust, reliable wireless communication – something that WiFi can struggle with as the radio spectrum becomes congested,” says Huibers. “The third benefit is the security aspect. LiFi provides an extra level of security as light cannot penetrate walls. The connection has to be within line of sight and is enabled with a personal USB access key. The final benefit is scalability. Our LiFi offers scalable capabilities for up to 15 users within the coverage beam of one light point.”
So, LiFi is great news in many ways, bringing connectivity to underserved areas and building a stable foundation for expansion. As the Internet of Things (IoT) accumulates more and more smart objects and systems, radio frequencies may not be enough. Fortunately, the light spectrum is 1,000 times larger than the radio spectrum, offering considerable room for growth. Various industries could benefit from this extra bandwidth and added security if WiFi happens to fail. In healthcare, for example, LiFi could work as a back up for accessing important patient records in hospitals and clinics. Huibers envisages that educational facilities, banking and government, and corporate power plants and factories could also take advantage of the technology. Providing an additional layer of connectivity to enclosed spaces in this way is likely to play an important role in setting up smart city infrastructures… Particularly in environments where WiFi can be patchy like airports, stations, concert venues, or any large public areas that can be saturated by competing devices.
“Creating LiFi zones can solve a lot of potential issues when WiFi is not working properly,” says Huibers. “This could be due to network overload or interference, or where surrounding factors disrupt the WiFi signal. Some examples of this might include large data centres, banks, boardrooms, or government buildings.”
Taking a stab in the dark
Despite the obvious advantages that come with LiFi, there are also numerous concerns. Is it really scalable? What implications are there for cybersecurity? While LiFi enthusiasts claim that it provides an extra level of security, it’s uncertain as to how easy it will be for internal hackers to infiltrate networks. According to Huibers, one of the main barriers to LiFi adoption is a lack of understanding. Instead of seeing LiFi as a replacement for WiFi, it should be seen as an enhancement. Nevertheless, a world connected by LiFi is arguably more accessible than one based on 5G networks – initially, at least. To take advantage of 5G, consumers will need a compatible device or chip like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon x20. LiFi will also need to be enabled by an external dongle, but this is likely to be a stepping stone to built-in alternatives. And, what’s more, it will be far cheaper than a state of the art chip.
What does a world connected by light look like?
In urban spaces, LiFi could be distributed through street lights and other universally accessible fixtures. This means that the best networks may be limited to cities – but this is already largely the case with WiFi today. Interestingly, LiFi has applications outside of urban centres where WiFi may not be suitable or usable. Teaming light with connectivity represents a combination of two relatively new commodities that the vast majority of people use almost constantly – at least in more developed areas.
LiFi clearly has a lot of potential, but its developers will have to work hard to stand up to the other options. WiFi is so ingrained in society that it will be difficult to change both corporate and consumer behaviours. While Signify’s LiFi systems currently focus on B2B markets, bringing LiFi to the consumer market seems to be the next logical step. This is something that Firefly LiFi already seems to be working towards. Although the success of LiFi in the consumer sphere remains to be seen, early projects with companies like Icade are showcasing the technology’s potential. For now, the aim is to work alongside existing options to bring better connectivity to more people.
“We’re still at an early stage in its development,” says Huibers. “As the IoT grows, prices come down and the pressure on the radio spectrum becomes more acute, there will be a need for alternative wireless connectivity.”
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