By Dr. William Butler
Faculty Member, School of STEM
and Dr. Novadean Watson-Williams
Program Director, Computer Technology and Information Technology Management
LiFi, short for Light Fidelity, is an emerging technology that is already in use in some European countries. It works through a lamp that uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that turn on and off at very high speeds invisible to the human eye. The LEDs’ light patterns emulate 1s and 0s, enabling data to be streamed through a transceiver, which resides within the cone of light cast by the LED lamp.
This transceiver uses a LED access point and can be connected to any computer’s Universal Serial Bus (USB) port. The access point translates the visible light frequency into binary code and delivers it to a hub connected to the internet using Power-over-Ethernet (POE) technology. Up to eight to 16 electronic devices, such as laptops and desktop computers, can be connected to the LiFi system.
How Did LiFi Develop?
German engineer Harald Haas originally developed the concept of LiFi. Haas knew that more and more people wanted to get onto the internet, but the internet could only accommodate so many users. He sought a better way to bring the internet to the over four billion people worldwide who lack access to it and spent decades working on LiFi technology.
Leaders in the LiFi Industry
Over time, various organizations have emerged as leaders in the LiFi industry. They include:
- Technology company pureLifi, Edinburgh, Scotland
- Research institute Fraunhofer Henrich Hertz Institute (HHI), Berlin, Germany
- Technology company FireFly Wireless Networks, LLC, San Diego, California
- Internet service provider Oledcomm, Vélizy-Villacoublay, France
- Multinational corporation General Electric (GE), Boston, Massachusetts
- International conglomerate Philips, Amsterdam, Holland
- LiFi technology company VLNComm, Charlottesville, Virginia
Use of LiFi technology is lagging in the United States, but several research universities in the U.S. have begun looking into LiFi technologies. However, the predominant research is being performed at Chinese universities.
Why Does LiFi Use LEDs?
The commercial and residential use of LED lighting is becoming a standard worldwide. As its use increases, the costs for LED hardware continues to decrease.
In addition, LEDs offer many advantages, compared to traditional lighting options. Combining LiFi with LED lights has price and environmental benefits, as well as allowing the dual use of an already efficient system.
As the radio frequency (RF) spectrum starts to reach maximum capacity and increases in its vulnerability, LiFi offers a secure, high-speed alternative for transmitting data. Since light is easier to contain compared to RF systems, LiFi has the additional benefit of being easy to protect from hacking.
While it is difficult to compare an established technology like Wi-Fi to an emerging technology such as LiFi, these lists describe the basic differences between LiFi and Wi-Fi.
- Transmits data using light-emitting diodes and other optical sensors
- Is 100 times faster than Wi-Fi
- Offers better safety and security than Wi-Fi, especially in high-risk environments
- Doesn’t interfere with radio signals
- Also uses infrared (IR) lighting and is compliant with Infrared Data Association (IrDA) standards
- Acknowledged by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as an alternative communication standard within the 802.11 communication standard for wireless local area networks (WLANs)
- Doesn’t interfere with the data exchange technology of airlines, hospitals, underwater communication equipment, and secure operations
- Can reach theoretical speeds of 100 gigahertz per second
- Has 10 times the frequency spectrum of RF
- Can work in a highly dense environment without the risk of data collision
- Works in an RF whiteout area
- Allows open access encryption to occur at the access point
- Reduces overall energy and lighting costs
- Increased range is dependent on frequency
- Wireless LAN IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ad compliant devices are commonplace
- Hotspots are mobile due to cellular adaptations
- Radio waves can pass through some physical obstacles during transmission
- Average transmission distance is 32 meters in any direction
- Widely integrated into commercial and government facilities at present
- Distance is limited to line of sight only – the coverage area cannot exceed a 10-meter downward cone for ceiling-embedded access points from transceivers (which can be overcome by adding additional lighting fixtures)
- Limited manufacturers at present
- The technology is misunderstood by the RF wireless community
- Information traveling on radio waves is easily intercepted
- Frequencies are easily triangulated, and their location can be easily deciphered
- Frequency interference is common
- Wi-Fi is not safe for environments that require high security
- Wi-Fi has limited underwater functionality
- Transmission speed is limited
- Limited frequencies are available
While the idea of using light for free space communication is not a new one, technical advances and new market trends have merged in the past five years, allowing more highly efficient and cost-effective solutions to be developed. LiFi offers a wealth of benefits, including lower operating costs and increased efficiency, which could make it attractive to both companies and end users. The LiFi market is expected to reach 50 billion dollars by 2023.
About the Authors
Dr. William T. Butler is currently a part-time IT instructor in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Dr. Butler’s past research in LiFi in coordination with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory included the development of a demonstration prototype, which was presented to major commands within the Department of Defense (DoD), including the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The significance of this breakthrough technology was acknowledged by the installation of the third-generation prototype onboard a Pacific fleet aircraft carrier. Dr. Butler is retired from the DoD and from the U.S. Navy. Dr. Butler also teaches project and risk management and advises on the subject of LiFi to commercial and government institutions.
Dr. Butler holds a doctorate in information technology and education from Capella University and performed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Cyber Asymmetric Operations. He holds a master of science in computer systems management from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
Dr. Novadean Watson-Williams is currently the Program Director for the undergraduate programs in computer technology and information technology management. She serves an aggressively growing department and has over 20 years of experience in the information technology field. Dr. Watson-Williams holds an A.A. in computer studies and a B.S. in information systems management from the University of Maryland University College, a B.S. in social science education from the University of South Florida, an M.A. in general counseling from Louisiana Tech University, and a D.B.A. in information systems from Argosy University.
Dr. Watson-Williams has published several blog articles on topics such as “Countering Cybersecurity Attacks through Accountability,” “Creating a Personal Brand through Using the Internet,” “Leadership Using Effective Nonverbal Communication,” and “Inspiring Self-Improvement through Technology Education, Collective Intelligence and Soft Skills.” She has also co-published several other articles, including “RFID with Real Implications,” “Artificial Intelligence in Information Security” and the “Evolution of Information Security.”