Monday, December 21, 2015

New, faster Li-Fi technology brings hope to crowded WiFi networks

In 2011, Harold Hass blew the minds of wireless technologists in a TED Talk on Li-Fi, a new technology infrastructure providing data connections between devices on the backs of light waves. Last week, the innovation made news again when a company in Estonia successfully deployed the technology, offering the world's first real-life use of Li-Fi.

Li-Fi is compelling for a number of reasons. First, it's significantly faster than most everyday wireless connections, delivering speeds over 1 Gb per second, and even saw a throughput as high as 224 Gb per second in lab settings. In contrast, the latest and greatest enterprise Wi-Fi technology is capable of delivering between 1 and 2 Gb per second in the most ideal conditions. The physics of how data delivery rates are related to wave frequency explain the phenomenon. A 5.0 GHz WiFi connection is faster than that same connection at 2.4 GHz. Considering the visible light spectrum is about 10,000 times those frequency ratings, it's no surprise light as a medium delivers data faster.

But beyond the obvious differences in throughput, LiFi represents a possible release valve for currently congested and over-used WiFi channels. This is the greater, more global problem with the radio-based technology that is WiFi: everyone and everything increasingly demands to use it. With new wireless devices coming online at an exponential rate, the struggle to adopt hardware infrastructures that can keep up is very real. A limited radio frequency spectrum that the FCC allows for WiFi only exacerbates the issue. LiFi, however, operates on the visual light spectrum, which doesn't interfere with existing WiFi signals, and as such, brings new hope to the world's wireless capacity challenges.

However, LiFi is not free of disadvantages. Light cannot pass through walls, whereas WiFi can. On one hand, this means a LiFi data connection is more easy to secure and control in terms of access, but on the other, it means LiFi compliant light sources would need to be installed everywhere one needs to connect with the medium.

Additionally, because light sensors need to be able to "see" each other in order for a LiFi connection to sustain, the technology likely will struggle when used in direct sun-light. Also, deploying the new technology will involve significant and costly infrastructural upgrades. New phones, tablets, and other LiWi compliant devices will also need to be built and developed

At the end of the day, LiFi in its current (albeit developing) form is unlikely to completely replace WiFi. The new tech's limitations aside, there is simply too much existing functional WiFi infrastructure to ignore, and wide-spread adoption of LiFi is still a few years away. However, at the rate new wireless devices are coming online, LiFi might arrive just in time to give IT departments a reasonable way to keep everyone connected and happy.

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