The future of the internet is… streetlights?

The future of the internet is… streetlights?

Despite its apparent omnipresence, the internet is only available to around half of the world’s population. Whatever estimate you choose, billions are without the basic internet access we take for granted in more developed countries. This means that, if we are to achieve digital equality, these billions of people will need access.

If you couple this with growing interest in the Internet of Things (IoT), and the tens of billions of devices expected to be connected to the internet in the next few years, then the strain on the world’s energy supply will be vast.

Research has suggested that global internet usage could consume over 20% of the world’s energy by 2030. Any huge expansion in the reach of the internet only works, then, if we can find an almost energy-neutral way of running it.

Enter LiFi 

At a Ted talk in 2011, the University of Edinburgh’s Harald Haas gave a presentation on the technology, claiming boldly that the world’s practically infinite supply of LED lights could be harnessed to transmit data as well as provide light.

Not only that, but LiFi can cater for speeds of up to 50MB per second from a standard, off-the-shelf solar cell receiver. A faster, cheaper, more energy-efficient form of wireless internet? The tech community’s interest has been piqued. But has it worked?

Binary District Journal sat down with Mohamed Sufyan Islim, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Edinburgh’s LiFi R&D Centre.

So, how does LiFi work?

On the electromagnetic spectrum, WiFi utilises a point between radio waves and microwaves. This relatively narrow portion of the spectrum can be time-shared by multiple networks.

LiFi, on the other hand, uses the visible light spectrum to transfer data. Visible light is almost 10,000 times larger than the spectrum occupied by radio waves. Compared with WiFi, it could provide a 100x bandwidth increase.

Essentially, data is encoded in the light emitted from LEDs. It is encoded into subtle changes in brightness that are undetectable to the human eye. This data can be picked up by purpose-built receivers, but Haas and his colleagues have developed a way for ordinary solar panels to act as receivers.

In this sense, the infrastructure for both the transmission and receiving of LiFi-powered data is already in place, tied intimately with the drive for more sustainable power.

The potential extrapolations of the technology are present anywhere LED lights are found – essentially everywhere.

Localized advertising in stores would become more accurate and powerful, anyone in a dense urban environment would (almost always) have access to superfast internet, and cars would be able to communicate using their LED headlights and backlights to avoid accidents.

Places where WiFi has been difficult to achieve – out on the street, onboard an aircraft, etc. – could be serviced by LiFi given the abundance of lights found in most public areas.

These are just a handful of the promising changes LiFi could bring, on top of acting as simply another form of connectivity to bolster existing WiFi and mobile data technologies.

How LiFi is being developed

LiFi has come a long way since Haas introduced it in 2011. In a 2017 presentation by Nikola Serafimovski, VP of Standardisation and Business Development at pureLiFi, the company announced its first working dongle.

The dongle, Nikola says, is the beginning of LiFi becoming a ubiquitous product. The technology works, including the ability for the connectivity to be passed from one light to another, as Nikola demonstrates.


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