Getting the Internet through a light bulb might be better and faster than WiFi. And within the next year, you’ll likely be able to use it.
Dr. Harald Haas, Chair of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh, says it’s here right on time: just as the boundaries of WiFi get very tight, LiFi could be on the way to fix that.
“If we believe what the industry says, which is that by 2020 we’ll have 26 billion wireless devices, of which 17 billion are internet devices,” he said. “This can’t be served by radio so it’s naturally a need to find these new resources.”
The spectrum LiFi would use has “1,000 times more resources than we have in the radio spectrum.” Furthermore, Haas explains, “the radio spectrum is comprised of all military systems, all radio astronomy, all defense systems, all TV, radio, cellular communications. The actual path for WiFi is 20 megahertz.”
Haas has been working on LiFi technology for 13 years, roughly the lifespan of WiFi technology, which is now firmly integrated into our lifestyles. While WiFi signals are getting more crowded, LiFi technology offers other perks beyond a larger field of frequencies. It can be used in ways that WiFi cannot, and deliver more data.
Here’s the gist of how it works: It’s a sort of wireless optical data system where lightbulbs, LEDs and other visible light spectrum devices can be modified and upgraded to send data at higher rates to nearby devices. How much faster? Well, speedier than a lot of Internet providers are even capable of delivering right now.
“The capabilities have been shown,” Haas said. “They’ve been shown (to transmit) up to 100 gigabytes per second with laser LEDs, and depending on the actual laser technology, we can get various speeds in between.”
Compare that to the average national speed of about 34 mbps, and it certainly looks like Comcast and Time Warner have some upscaling to do in the next few years.
Infrastructure, however, can pose a hurdle for this technology. But there’s a bigger hurdle for the short term: We don’t have the hardware. And it’s not just the lightbulbs and transmitters. Your cellphone and laptop can’t currently receive signal from LiFi.
To be fair, that’s exactly how WiFi was before it became standard in every household. Haas says it’s “an early stage disruptive technology. The issue is to make the LiFi transmitters and receivers very small, and for that we need microchip technology that can integrate the technology. We need to miniaturize it. We’re working on that miniaturization.”
Those receivers look like garbage right now, if you’ve come to expect aesthetics. Think about the bulkiest external battery for your smartphone and you’re in the ballpark.
Haas says to wait for a generation or two of the new tech before it reaches WiFi’s current standard. “Not for a long time, but for some time it will be an add-on,” he says. “If you remember how WiFi was introduced in the early days, it was via a dongle. You had a stick you put into the USB port of the laptop, and that allowed you to connect the laptop with WiFi. And you need to remember this was only 15 years back, not that long. But now WiFi is ubiquitous; WiFi is everywhere.”
Haas expects to see those as early next year. He says the smartphone add-on will probably be about the size of a deck of cards, and the laptop add-on will be about the size of a thumb drive. “We’ll see this for some time, and the cost of these devices will be not very high, as they will sort of be flooding the market. People will recognize the advantages you have in terms of reliable data transmission, higher security.”
Oh, and it won’t be a complete replacement for WiFi technology. Not in the foreseeable future. See, for as good as LiFi is in smaller areas, it’s inferior in wide open ones. Parks, roads and wide open spaces are all better territories for radio signals than light signals. In part, that’s because the sun can interfere with LiFi communications.
Haas explains that the outdoors “is clearly the area where we still need radio, and is more sensible to use the limited radio resources in these environments.”
And another hassle? Since technology needs to see the light to communicate, it won’t be on LiFi in, say, your pocket. “Obviously when we have it in the pocket, we won’t get signal,” says Haas. “We’d get the signal by radio, but as soon as we take it out of the pocket, the phone will then switch automatically, so we have a ubiquitous sort of seamless transition of technology.”
Still, LiFi tech is already in the early stages of production and release. “I think we’re close to having it in a coffee shop,” says Haas. “We’re partnered with an LED manufacturer in France, and we’ll get our LiFi enabled light bulb out next year into the market.”
What’s more, LiFi will solve some existing troubles with how to transmit data, because it will function in areas where data transmission is necessary but difficult, or dangerous.
Part of that could be inside aircraft, where antennas cause some problems. Part of it could be in military craft like submarines, where WiFi has difficulty traveling through water.
Haas says it’s also a safe opportunity for sending data in precarious situations—everything from underwater to inside gas pipes, or essentially “environments where you can’t use radio.”
Right now, he’s even working on converting solar energy cells to be receivers—an idea that could bring Internet signal to homes via rooftop rigs.
“That could provide the Internet to regions where we traditionally don’t have it,” he said.
And LiFi is the perfect option for that, since it doesn’t sound like more users will crowd the resources.