Li-Fi the Disruptor? Not So Fast.

The Illumination Communication Technology Is Light on Standards

Li-Fi_lLi-Fi has been back in the spotlight in the past week after start-up Velmenni said it was live-testing a light-based communications technology in an enterprise environment. Velmenni makes transmitters that can flash out data to customized photoreceptors attached to smartphones, and the potential throughput numbers are impressive. Reports of theoretical rates of 224 Gbps in ideal settings mean light-based communications could usurp Wi-Fi as the most common local-area connection medium. But even Velmenni sees the technology as years off from wide adoption, and indicates that it’s best used for special occasions.

Li-Fi first caught the attention of CCS Insight analysts in 2011, when Professor Harald Haas of the University of Edinburgh gave a convincing demonstration of the technology at a TED conference. The research group behind it has since spun off into a firm called pureLiFi, which is looking to drive the use of Visible Light Communication (VLC) mainstream through off-the-shelf, standard LED bulbs acting as Internet access points. Billions of existing light sockets could suddenly form a communications infrastructure. PureLiFi envisions a future in which average light bulbs have the computing power of current-day smart devices.

Back in July 2014, CCS Insight wrote about a Li-Fi test in Mexico in which data was transmitted at 10 Gbps (see Daily Insight: Light Support). We said then that Li-Fi should be on the radar of telecommunication equipment providers, component suppliers, handset makers, operators, broadcasters and even light bulb manufacturers. There have been convincing stage demos of VLC and now a limited real-world roll-out, but the standardization process is still in its early stages and has not caught up with this progress. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 802.15.7 Visible Light Communication Task Group has been the lead specification-making body, and is now pushing ahead with research for two-way light communications. However, finalization will take time.

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular technologies are well-supported and widely implemented thanks to the backing of specification-making bodies with development processes and patent licensing principles. Proprietary VLC techniques such as those developed by pureLiFi and Velmenni will need wide industry cooperation for Li-Fi to reach mainstream.

For now, VLC is an interesting special-occasion access method. At crowded venues, on aeroplanes or in hospitals, where the use of radio signals is limited or prohibited, subtle light flashes unperceivable to the human eye could pump out data to compatible devices (see Daily Insight: A Guiding Light).

Li-Fi has the long-term potential to complement existing access technologies, but is going through a headline hype phase. There are recent encouraging signs of global interest in developing VLC as an open technology, but we expect it will require the normal telecommunication roll-out procedures from concept to implementation.

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