LiFi set to light up the last mile

LiFi technology is ready to ride on the changeover to LED lighting to bring affordable, very high bandwidth last mile connectivity to urban areas

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LiFi set to light up the last mile Dubai Design District has a LiFi network and smart phone app to provide information to visitors and office workers.
By  Mark Sutton Published  January 15, 2018

Internet connectivity has become an accepted part of a connected society, regarded as an engine of economic development, a cornerstone of smart government, and, in some instances, as a human right. Government initiatives like national broadband programs, which aim to create nationwide, easy access to broadband, highlight the importance of connectivity in strategic national plans. There is also a widespread adoption of WiFi technology to deliver ‘last mile’ connectivity, direct to the end users, particularly in public spaces.

Public wireless deployments have been a mix of commercial hotspots, and state-sponsored programs such as the UAE’s WiFi UAE and UAE WiFi schemes. Now a new technology, light fidelity, or LiFi, looks set to add a new dimension to public wireless connectivity, potentially bring more cost-effective deployments with speeds far in excess of WiFi’s capabilities.

LiFi is a part of Visible Light Communications (VLC) technology, the concept of using the visible light spectrum for data communications, although the idea, and even the extcution, is not new. In 1880, the noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell created a device called a ‘photophone’ which could transmit voice communications using light, which was demonstrated to work over distances as much as 200m.

More recent developments, mainly the LED light bulb, have opened up new possibilities in light-based communications. LiFi works by switching an LED light source on and off at over one million times per second, too fast to be detected by the human eye, but creating a signal which can transmit data over line-of-sight.

Benjamine Azoulay is CEO of Oledcomm, a producer of LiFi modems, chipsets and ecosystems, and a pioneer in the sector. The company was formed based on research conducted at the University of Versailles by Professor Suat Topsu, founder and chairman of Oledcomm. The company is working with public and private sector entities in France and other countries on LiFi deployment.

There are several reasons that make LiFi a compelling proposition, Azoulay explained: “First of all, it is about the speed. The potential of this technology is absolutely huge. Professor Dominic O’Brien of Oxford University [one of the leaders in LiFi] achieved 224Gbps in his laboratory, and we estimate that it could go up to 1 terabit per second. That is in a laboratory of course, but it shows the potential.

“The second benefit is that with LiFi, there are no radio waves. In Europe there is more concern about the exposure of children and pregnant women to radio waves in wireless. In hospitals and kindergartens in France, it is forbidden to use radio waves. So [with LiFi] we have a solution that provides communication in places where radio waves are not allowed for a health perspective. From a physical security perspective, in environments like refineries, nuclear power plants, or mines, where it is absolutely forbidden to use radio waves, because it can ignite an explosion — we have a solution there, for safety reasons. To summarise, it is a very fast connection, without radio waves, and it is secure.”

In part, the development of LiFi, and much of its potential, lies in the emergence of LED lighting. LED lights can be utilised for LiFi in both one-way, mono-directional broadcast only situations (sometimes referred to as VLC), and also to send and receive signals in bi-directional communications. Typically, the LED light will need to be left switched on to operate, but this could be at very low levels, undetectable to the human eye. A LiFi deployment would usually require line-of-sight, although lab tests show that in certain conditions signals can still be read after being reflected off surfaces at Mbit speeds. The technology will work indoors and outdoors, even in bright light conditions, and ranges of 50 metres are possible even in poor weather conditions.

More importantly, the light beams will not penetrate a solid object, so unlike WiFi, where a network signal can be broadcast outside the physical walls of an organisation, and intercepted by a passing hacker, LiFi can be contained within a building or room, which coupled with encryption, give it a security advantage. The security capabilities of the technology have already attracted the interest of the Federal government of Canada, which is looking at secure phone systems using LiFi.

One of the areas of focus for Oledcomm is developing and implementing the modems and chipsets which will turn an LED light bulb into a LiFi transmitter, and this is the area where LiFi has a major advantage, namely in that because lighting is so pervasive, connecting a LiFi network could be as simple as changing a lightbulb. Professor Harold Haas of the University of Edinburgh, another pioneer in LiFi, has said that potentially every LED lightbulb could become part of a LiFi network.

LED light is already gaining widespread adoption, driven mainly by the efficiency of energy consumption, which is at least 50% less than traditional lightbulbs, and lifetime of an LED bulb of 20-25 years compared to two years. With many cities switching to LEDs for street lighting, there is huge potential to extend this changeover to include LiFi, Azoulay said.

“The core business of Oledcomm is taking modems and putting them into lighting equipment to make them smart and intelligent. For instance, in the south of Paris, we have 77 light poles equipped with LiFi with mono-directional technology. The first use case is to provide geo-localised information to inhabitants, so a person below the light pole can get information that is specific to the place he is in; which is extremely valuable for the city,” he said.

Oledcomm has already completed a pilot project using LiFi as an indoor positioning system, in the Métro station for Paris’s La Défense business district, where it is used primarily as a guide to direct visually-impaired people. The company has now been awarded the project to implement the same technology in all 290 Métro stations over the next five years.

“The second step will be to use the LiFi as last mile communication, so the light poles become a key element of smart city connectivity and infrastructure. Adding LiFi will allow for many IOT sensors to be connected to be the light pole, if you have a smart meter somewhere, it needs to be connected to a node of the network, so this light pole will be equipped with connectivity elements, and a smart meter will be able to communicate with it,” Azoulay added.

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