LiFi Verging Ever Closer to Reality

John Byrne – Service Director, Global Technology Telecom and Software

Summary Bullets:

  • Investments by numerous vendors over the past few years in ‘LiFi’ are resulting in meaningful progress in 2018. A trial announced by Philips Lighting in March represents a huge endorsement.
  • While the technology remains several years away from commercial products, LiFi represents a truly disruptive technology that could augment traditional cellular and WiFi.

News flash: With seemingly insatiable customer demand for high-speed data and streaming video, network operators are increasingly concerned about how they can keep pace. And much of that concern centers on ‘bandwidth.’ Traditional cellular radio technologies are constrained, and operators and regulators are scrambling to find new spectrum on which to provide service, particularly with the 5G era looming. WiFi provides an effective tool to extend cellular or fixed coverage into homes and businesses, but it is difficult to seamlessly integrate into other networks and is racked with security vulnerabilities.

However, potentially disruptive technology advancement may be just around the corner, and the key may lie in light-emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs that are increasingly being deployed by homeowners, businesses, and municipalities as replacements for less-efficient traditional incandescent bulbs. This is obviously being done to reduce energy consumption and related costs, but LiFi may provide another major incentive to move to LED.

What exactly is LiFi, and how does it work? LiFi stands for ‘light fidelity,’ a technology that allows users to transmit and receive data across visible light spectrum as well as invisible infrared and ultraviolet light, in the same way that WiFi (‘wireless fidelity’) relies on radio frequencies. Beyond the different transmitting techniques, however, the technologies essentially work the same way: plug a router into an access point via Ethernet cable, connect an access point to a LiFi-enabled LED light, and embed LiFi connectivity into a smartphone, laptop, or other endpoint in the same way that WiFi is currently enabled in these devices.

WiFi and LiFi have significantly different operating characteristics. LiFi has much shorter range than WiFi; however, this challenge is potentially overcome by the much greater volume of LED lightbulbs in a room or building from which to receive signals. In addition, unlike WiFi, LiFi signals require a direct line-of-sight connection and cannot penetrate through walls. However, while this represents a coverage challenge, it also greatly reduces the potential for hackers to break into LiFi networks from outside. LiFi is also free of interference challenges that often stymy WiFi, which operates on unlicensed radio frequencies; LiFi can also enable ultra-accurate location capabilities that allow pinpointing of user location within as little as one centimeter.

It’s easy to envision a variety of early LiFi use cases in areas where LED lighting will be ubiquitous. Indoor stadiums could achieve near-unlimited capacity. Shopping centers could offer a variety of new promotions to customers by knowing exactly what product they are standing near. Hospitals could perform remote surgery with extreme accuracy. Smart cities installing LED lighting could introduce a variety of functions to improve city services.

That’s a lot of ‘could,’ of course, and there is much R&D to be completed before LiFi becomes a reality. But, a host of network equipment and silicon vendors like Nokia and Samsung are working feverishly to develop, test, and eventually productize LiFi gear. And in March, Philips Lighting (soon to be known as Signify), one of the largest manufacturers of LED lighting solutions, announced it will initiate a trial with one of its customers: French company Icade, which develops and leases business parks. Icade will first deploy LiFi-enabled luminaires (electric light units) internally at its France ‘smart office,’ but presumably the endgame will be for it to begin offering the LiFi-enabled solutions to position its business park lessees to take advantage of LiFi once it is ready for prime time.

To be sure, there are still major issues to overcome. Formal LiFi technology standards need to be developed. Many more pilots need to be launched. Chipset and network equipment vendors need to commit to specific development roadmaps to ensure sufficient scale to keep prices low.

All of this is likely to take two to three years; after that, it will be a matter of savvy sales and marketing to see how long it takes for consumers, enterprises, and municipalities to ‘see the light’ on LiFi.

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