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LiFi: Can Visible Light Communication Save the Internet?

One obstacle to many emerging technologies is that often there is not enough infrastructure to support its full-scale roll-out. One example is building a robust charging network that ensures electric vehicles don’t run out of juice on a cross-country roadtrip. In the computing world, we’ve talked about how Moore’s Law – the theorem that computing power doubles about every two years, while costs drop by half – is coming to an end. Soon it just won’t be possible to cram enough electrical components into a circuit, just as technologies like artificial intelligence demand ever more computational power at the edge and beyond. Some are betting on quantum computers to save the day, while others are trying to redesign hardware through neuromorphic computing. A similar crisis is looming in wireless communication, as the radio waves become clogged. But there’s a possible light at the end of the bandwidth tunnel: LiFi.

What is LiFi?

When we talk about wireless communication, most of us probably think about our cellular data plan or jumping on a WiFi network in a local coffee shop to waste time on Facebook to get some work done. In both cases, the technology relies on radio frequencies to transmit data. The problem is that the available bandwidth in that part of the electromagnetic spectrum is becoming saturated, with wireless traffic undergoing a 60% compound annual growth rate during the last 10 years. People who spend a lot of time thinking about these sorts of problems predict that in another 20 years, demand will be 12,000 times the current bandwidth, which would completely swamp the radio frequency spectrum.

The light spectrum offers more bandwidth than radio waves.

The light spectrum offers more bandwidth than radio waves. Credit: Review in Physics

Let there be light.

LiFi, which refers to light fidelity (WiFi is wireless fidelity), simply uses light to transmit data, employing the infrared and visible light frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. Data is sent by flickering light – not the sort of soul-draining lights found in a basement office, but superfast blinking LEDs that the human eye can’t detect. It’s a bit like sending a message by SOS.

How LiFi works.

How LiFi works. Credit: pureLiFi

A few companies are already building the hardware to enable computers and mobile devices to play the LiFi light show, including infrared transmitters that are built on the same old tech in a TV remote control. More on them later.

Advantages of LiFi

The size of the LiFi spectrum is about 2600 times the entire radio frequency spectrum, which means it has more-than-enough bandwidth capacity to handle the future world of smart cities, autonomous cars, and robotic overlords workers. While 5G cellular technology is being touted as the wireless wave of the future, it still relies on the same radio frequencies that we just said are quickly running out of room. In contrast, LiFi seems nearly limitless. And it’s not just bandwidth where LiFi shines. Demonstrations of the technology have shown transmission speeds of 8 Gbps from a single light source.

LiFi network

A LiFi network. Credit: Review in Physics

In addition, a LiFi network can be deployed by modifying existing LED lighting systems without interfering with existing radio frequency networks. That’s another major selling point of the technology: There is no concern about RF interference, which makes LiFi an attractive alternative to WiFi or cellular communications in certain environments where radio waves could disrupt instruments, such as airplanes, or even cause safety problems, like in petrochemical plants where mobile phones are generally banned because the radio frequency can theoretically cause a spark and blow the whole place to smithereens. And there’s also the cybersecurity angle: It’s impossible to hijack the signal remotely, though no doubt hackers are working on an (anti-)solution, as we type.

Brief History of LiFi and Visible Light Communication

The man behind the theory – and practical application – of LiFi is German-born University of Edinburgh professor Harald Haas, who coined the term LiFi in 2011. However, the use of what’s known as visible light communication (VLC) in various forms goes way, way back to the 1880s when an actual Scottish-born scientist, Alexander Graham Bell, invented the photophone, which transmitted speech on a beam of sunlight. The device is considered the direct ancestor to fiber optic communication systems.

It wouldn’t really be until the 21st century when VLC research really took off. Scientists in Japan, for instance, demonstrated LED light data transmission as early as 2003. Zee Germans achieved VLC data transmission rates of 500 megabits per second by 2010. Another step forward in the technological development of LiFi happened in 2013 when engineers demonstrated that the transmitter and receiver do not require line-of-sight conditions, but can use incident light including reflection.

Market Potential of LiFi

A number of use cases have emerged aside from providing internet connectivity, as we’ve learned more about how VLC works. LED stoplights could be used to transmit kill orders information to smart cars, for example. And just as WiFi has been turned into a motion sensor to detect movement, LiFi could be used for indoor positioning in conditions where GPS doesn’t work. In fact, that technology not only already exists but is commercially available through Signify (LIGHT), the re-branded name of the Philips lighting company, which was spun off from Royal Philips (PHIA) in 2018. Through the Philips brand, Signify offers an indoor positioning system using LED lights that sends a unique code to a customer’s mobile device, accurately pinpointing the user’s specific location on a map of the store in order to help them consume more efficiently.

Visible light communication for indoor positioning retail.

Credit: Philips

It’s the same principle being used by retailers to spam customers enhance the shopping experience using audio beacons that ping your smartphone with sound. Philips introduced the VLC system as early as 2015 in Carrefour supermarkets in Europe.

LiFi is beginning to have a life of its own, with its own trade organization and technical standards. The total LiFi market was reportedly worth $500 million in 2016, with one estimate floating out there that it could climb to $75 billion by 2023. That seems a tad optimistic, but apparently someone’s PR department is doing its job.

LiFi Mass Market Manufacturer

Click for company websiteThat brings us back to zee man himself, Harald Haas, who obviously saw the market potential of the technology that he helped create. In 2012, he co-founded pureLiFi, a Scottish startup that has raised about $43.9 million, including an $18 million Series B earlier this month. The company is beginning to roll out a range of products required to enable your own LiFi network, including what it touts as the first purpose-built LiFi silicon chip, along with LiFi drivers, receivers, and other components that can LiFi-enable existing computers and mobile devices.

A device for connecting to a LiFi network.

Credit: pureLiFi

pureLiFi has partnered with a number of companies and organizations to test its technology in more than 20 projects around Europe, from internet connectivity in classrooms to geolocation services for a hospital where RF interference from WiFi previously prohibited the use of connected technologies. In yet another case study, pureLiFi installed a LiFi network of LEDs and LiFi-connected vibration sensors so that an engineering firm could gather data on low-pressure air compressors, showing how the technology can also serve the industrial Internet of Things sector.

LiFi Startups

While pureLiFi is probably the leader in VLC technology for internet technology, it’s not the only startup in the space. Here’s a brief look at a few of the other players:

Click for company websiteFounded in 2011, Paris-based Oledcomm took in an undisclosed Seed round way back in 2014. The company introduced its flagship product, LiFiMax, at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. The low-profile ceiling lamp provides an internet connection of speeds up to 100Mbps for up to 16 users, with a maximum range of 92 feet and location accuracy of about 10 inches. Even more recently, the French startup announced a deal with Air France to deploy its LiFi technology aboard planes.

Click for company websiteOut of Estonia by way of India is Velmenni, a LiFi startup also founded in 2012. Both Velmenni and pureLiFi are founding members of a new optical wireless data transmission trade organization called Light Communications Alliance. We don’t know much more about the company except that Velmenni is creating “a LiFi-based mesh network solution which helps in transferring data across long distances. The product makes setting up wireless networks in ground, motion [and] air possible.”

Click for company websiteFounded in 2015, Hong Kong-based Infinity Technology Services claims to have developed a plug-and-play LiFi system that uses LiFi-enabled lights and transmitter/receivers the size of thumb drives to create a localized internet connection for offices. The company says the Infinity LiFi X provides a stable connection with a peak speed of 220Gbps for up to 100 people simultaneously, quite the claim given the maturity of the technology.

Conclusion

You might have noticed that we haven’t mentioned a single U.S. company. That’s because, as far as we know, Europe and to a lesser degree Asia are leading the way on LiFi technology. We did see that Qualcomm (QCOM) is toying with LiFi-based retail solutions similar to Philips. But there’s still time to catch up, as the wireless standards for LiFi aren’t expected to be completed until 2021. And, if the technology lives up to the hype, there will be plenty of market share to start. Another interesting play on the LiFi theme may be investing in smart light companies or other smart device manufacturers, which could be poised to exploit their position in the market.

Haas himself makes an interesting observation on this point: “In 25 years from now, we argue that the LED lightbulb will serve thousands of applications and will be an integral part of the emerging smart cities, smart homes and the IoT. … It is, therefore, conceivable that the wireless industry and the lighting industry will merge into one.”

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