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Excitement over Li-Fi

Monday, December 7, 2015
Science and Society

Li-Fi is a wireless communication technology that is similar to Wi-Fi. Whereas Wi-Fi uses the RF (radio frequency) spectrum, Li-Fi uses the visible light spectrum and can transfer data 100 times faster. It is theoretically possible, under ideal conditions, to download eighteen movies in one second using this new technology.  

So naturally, as on-demand streaming of movies is fast becoming the norm, the potential advantages of Li-Fi technology have resulted in great interest and anticipation. 

So what is LI-Fi and how does it work? It is a visible light communication (VLC) technology that uses the light from LEDs (light emitting diodes) to transfer data at extremely high speeds. In office and industrial environments, it was demonstrated recently, that data transfer speeds of one gigabit per second (1 Gbps) can be achieved. In layman’s language, that is one thousand million bits of information per second. Under laboratory conditions, researchers at Oxford University were able to achieve speeds of two hundred and twenty four Gbps.

Most persons are familiar with the standard television remote. This uses an infrared LED to create a low speed data stream. In Li-Fi devices, the intent is to transmit thousands of data streams in parallel and at much higher speeds. The technology is based on varying/modulating the current to LEDS which result in corresponding variations in the light output.

As this is done at quite high speeds, the changes in light intensity are imperceptible to the eye. These variations in light intensity are detected by a photodetector device and converted back to an electric current. In this manner, information can be transmitted at very high speeds.

The term Li-Fi was coined by Professor Haas of the University of Edinburgh, a leading light (no pun intended) in the field. An Estonian technology company that is developing commercial products based on this technology expects that, by the third quarter of next year (2016), a few products should be available. Full commercialization might probably take a few years more.

So will this technology replace Wi-Fi? It looks unlikely though it offers some clear potential benefits. In addition to providing illumination, existing lights can also be used to transmit data; at no extra or minimal energy cost. Further, LEDs are easily and readily available and the VLC technology can provide greater security for data transfer as light does not penetrate walls (like RF based Wi-Fi). However there are also some significant limitations. 

Firstly it cannot work outdoors. Using a traditional router and Wi-Fi technology, one may access the Internet indoors and outdoors. With Li-Fi, one is restricted to the room in which the LED is based. Further, the receiving devices must have line of sight of the LED.

So for instance if some bit of furniture or your hand for instance, blocks the light, the data transmission will cease. Wi-Fi does not suffer from this limitation. It must be pointed out also that the high speed data streaming capacity of the Li-Fi would be negated by low bandwidth/slow Internet connections. Its advantages can only be realised with high speed Internet facilities

So it would appear that for the short to medium term at least, Wi-Fi is unlikely to be replaced with Li-Fi. However, they can certainly complement each other with Li-Fi being used for specific high speed applications and Wi-Fi being used for normal purposes.  In the home environment, its use in one’s study or entertainment/game room will certainly be welcomed. High speed data streaming is an essential requirement for teaching and research and hence Li-Fi would be a useful addition at universities.

The effective incorporation of new and emerging ICT technologies, like Li-Fi, into businesses and enterprises nationally requires a clear operational strategy. To achieve this, NIHERST, in conjunction with iGovTT, had proposed to develop a facility at the Science City complex in Couva to train nationals in emerging technologies and to adapt same for local and regional applications. 

Such a facility is essential for diversification and entrepreneurial growth and hence one hopes that this venture would proceed.


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