The search for faster internet connection is never-ending. We want information, we need information, and any delays to us getting it causes aggravation and costs companies money. WiFi is an incredible resource, but it is still limited, and as connectivity spreads, both across the world and throughout the Internet of Things, problems will arise if WiFi is our only option.
The central issue with WiFi is that it works using radio waves. The radio spectrum is a limited resource, which means that as more devices become connected, everyone is sharing the same amount of bandwidth. It also uses far too much energy, and supporting the next billion people set to connect to the Internet for the first time over the next decade will be hugely damaging to the planet.
One solution currently being developed is LiFi, or light fidelity. German physicist Harald Haas, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, coined the term LiFi back in 2011, when he introduced the technology at the TED conference in Edinburgh. During recent trials of the technology in Estonia, speeds of over 1GB per second were recorded, which is around 100 times faster than current home WiFi speeds. It is expected to reach speeds of 3-5GB per second. The test in Estonia was important because it was the first to be achieved in real-world office and industrial environments, as opposed to in a lab. Researchers at the University of Oxford have previously managed to achieve speeds of 224 GB/ps in a lab.
LiFi devices work so well because they attempt to transmit not one data stream, but thousands of data streams in parallel, at higher speeds. Rather than using radio frequencies as WiFi does, LiFi uses a light source, a LiFi-enabled bulb with a special chip in it and a photo detector to create an Internet connection.
Professor Harald Haas says: ‘When you go to an airport or hotel and you want to download some video content, the data rates go down to zero — and it takes hours to even load a starting page because so many people are trying to log on at the same time that it creates a bottleneck,” he said. “You’re all trying to share a limited resource: the radio spectrum. Think of it as a lake and there are as many people as possible trying to get as much water as possible.’
There are obvious problems with LiFi in its current iteration, although it is still in the early stages of development and it is likely that these will be ironed out in time. At the moment, LiFi does not work outdoors, and light pollution may also present a problem. It will also be costly to replace WiFi, with homes and offices now already fitted with the infrastructure to provide it. Ripping all of this out and putting in LiFi technology is likely to prove extremely expensive. However, in time it will be necessary.