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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

Li-Fi: Turn on the Lights

At first, you might be mistaken to read it as Wi-Fi, but no, this is not a typo. Li-Fi is, in fact, a wireless communications technology, which uses light to transmit data. It was first introduced to us by Professor Harald Haas from the University of Edinburgh in 2011.

Where did the Li-Fi Consortium go?

Haas has been acknowledged as penning the term Li-Fi, where he introduced his audience to the possibility of ‘Wireless data from every light bulb’ in his TED Global Talk in August 2011. Like most technologies, such ideas, thoughts and notions have been in circulation for some time. In particular, visual light communication (VLC), which incredibly dates back as far as the late 19th century, offers the use of the visual light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit data. Seriously, who had this idea in the first place and how would they know how to try this?

Anyway, as with most immature wireless technologies, in my experience anyhow, they endure a battle of sorts, along with some jolly press coverage and a soupcon of excitement, typically generated by marketers but, alas, they then ordinarily fizzle out, if they don’t capture the imagination of the wider audience – that is, consumers in general. Along with the furor around Haas’s talk and the excitement surrounding the potential of Li-Fi, a consortium was soon established by four companies, but was later disbanded or, at least, I can no longer find it on the internet at the time of writing!

Li-Fi piqued my interest this month …

Nevertheless, with the emergence and popularity of the internet of things (IoT), Li-Fi seems to have been resurrected or, at least, the light has been switched back on (I know, *groan*). Let’s not forget, we have an industry that’s always eager to develop the next big thing! With most other wireless and cellular technologies muscling in on becoming the dominant “go-to” technology to enable the IoT, Li-Fi has also raised its hand in the proverbial innovation classroom, in amidst the other popular kids (that is, the other competitive technologies) where the teacher ignored him. Li-Fi alas needed to gain real interest from high-end technology companies and wanted to be seen as a realistic alternative to the more mainstream wireless kids on the block. Yep, it’s tough out there in the real world if you’re a short-range RF technology, but there’s probably a therapy session for that!

With the emergence of the internet of things, Li-Fi seems to have been resurrected.

I must admit that, whilst I have heard and read about Li-Fi for some time, I haven’t been too interested in the technology, since it hasn’t quite reached mainstream popularity, as I have already said. So, why has it piqued my interest in this month’s column? Well, it’s a combination of things, but in the usual “mine is bigger than yours” mantra, Li-Fi and Wi-Fi are seemingly pitted again against each other, probably because there’s nothing else better to do! Yet, whilst both technologies provide high-speed data connectivity, they do so differently.

Let me explain …

Li-Fi is inherently secure

Firstly, I’m sure most if not all of you are aware of Wi-Fi. After all, it has been with us now for over 20 years. So, Wi-Fi is comprised of a family set of 802.11 standards, which have evolved over a couple of decades and have been developed and maintained by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Wi-Fi uses radio waves to exchange data over the air interface and has become the most popular technology used for computers in homes and offices, as well as tablet and smartphone devices, especially when in public areas such as bars, restaurants, or shopping centers. More so, Wi-Fi has incorrectly been used synonymously to denote the internet itself, whereas, in reality it is a technology that merely facilities connectivity to the wide area network (WAN) or internet.

Despite all of its shortcomings in terms of popularity and lack of marketing, the emergence of Li-Fi made so many promises, but one in particular stood out so confidently against its competitor, Wi-Fi. Whilst Li-Fi has been modelled using various 802.11 protocols, it delivers its connectivity using ultraviolet, infrared and VLC instead of radio waves. I’m not going to waffle senselessly about who is faster and so on but, more specifically, Li-Fi’s distinct advantage over Wi-Fi is its use of data transportation, which is light. You see, electromagnetic interference caused by technologies such as Wi-Fi may interfere with aircraft, hospitals, and other connected constructions. Li-Fi, on the other hand, does not cause interference and, as such, possesses a superior advantage using “light.” It is inherently secure since light is localized to a specific area and does not penetrate walls and other divisions of space.

Until next time …

I’m not going to shine any light (excuse the pun) on the future for Li-Fi because it looks ever-so dim. Yes, it seems Li-Fi isn’t going to defeat Wi-Fi anytime soon despite its obvious advantages. Other wireless technologies are still jostling to be the dominant technology in their respective domains, but sometimes you win, sometimes you lose when you throw the dice at the wireless casino!

So, this is where an “I’m reaching for the light switch” Dr. G signs off.

Originally published in Technically Speaking.


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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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