Laser Li-Fi May Far Outpace 5G Communications
Replacing radio waves with laser light – ‘Li-Fi’ – could soon be used to boost the speed and reach of communications far beyond the limits promised by 5G.
Our increasingly connected world has always made use of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum for communications. Today, wireless data is a critical utility, an element of modern infrastructure that underpins virtually all of the services that we rely on.
With technological advances coming to light by the day and a constantly growing number of devices competing off a range of RF spectrum frequencies – primarily, 3G, 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth – experts believe that it will soon run out of space as it is a finite resource. As more and more connected devices are deployed in greater numbers, including emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, the IoT, and virtual reality (VR), RF may reach capacity sooner than we think and cause communications networks to crash, rendering connected devices useless.
With this problem looming, discovering new levels of data and bandwidth is a research priority, and there is one potential technology that looks promising.
A diagram of the LiFi ecosystem. Image used courtesy of PureLiFi, a company founded by the inventor of LiFi technology, Harald Haas
And Then There Was Li-Fi
Li-Fi is an emerging wireless optical networking technology that facilitates data transfer over short distances via the rapid (and invisible to the human eye) modulation of LED light bulbs. Although it was first pioneered over 10 years ago by Professor Harald Haas of Edinburgh University and several Li-Fi hardware solutions presently exist, we are just now beginning to appreciate it as a potential replacement for RF communications. According to a recent report by Global Market Insights, the Li-Fi industry is expected to be worth $75.5 billion by 2023.
Similar to Wi-Fi, Li-Fi is much faster and more secure since it uses LED luminaires and lightbulbs as data access points instead of radio base stations and wireless routers. Essentially, it combines telecommunications and lighting, creating an ideal ecosystem that can tackle the communications and connectivity challenges of the digital age.
As an example, one idea for a Li-Fi application involves placing Li-Fi routers on ceilings and using LED light to beam data around a room at rates as fast as 100Gbps, much faster than Wi-Fi.
Li-Fi also has several advantages over RF. The data spectrum for visible light is 1,000 times greater than the RF spectrum for a start, so there is far more capacity for higher data rates and bigger bandwidths.
An illustration of society using LiFi technology. In the image, a plane, vehicles, streetlights and a Li-Fi-enabled smartphone held by a man. Image used courtesy of PureLiFi
Ready for Mobile Applications in “About Three Years”
Throughout the industry, Li-Fi is seen as highly promising. SLD Laser is perhaps one of Li-Fi’s largest advocates. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that took place in Las Vegas, the company demonstrated its latest version of laser Li-Fi which achieved data rates of 20Gbps.
“There's loads of data that are being accumulated and are being moved around,” says Paul Rudy, chief marketing officer at SLD. “You need to transmit data and you need to do it at [long] range with as fast a data rate as possible.”
By basing Li-Fi on lasers rather than LEDs, SLD is able to boost performance because lasers can be modulated much faster and optical power can be higher, increasing its range. To achieve high optical power without creating a hazard for the human eye, SLD uses blue-emitting lasers to excite a phosphor, producing white light at eye-safe levels without hampering laser Li-Fi.
SLD, a company leading the Li-Fi industry with Li-Fi’s founder, Professor Haas, acting as an advisor, believes that laser Li-Fi could be ready for mobile applications – e.g. autonomous vehicles – within “about three years” and solutions for fixed, data-heavy environments – e.g. smart buildings – in “about four years”.