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Are Lamps the Next Wi-Fi Hotspots?

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are giving light fixtures the ability to transmit data to digital devices, with the goal of turning lamps everywhere into access points. For LED components, this could mean elevation from humble light bulb to essential wireless technology.

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LED lighting is finding a new and somewhat surprising application in communication technology. Researchers like Harald Haas, chair of mobile communications at the University of Edinburgh and co-founder of PureLiFi, have been hard at work solving the problems of radio frequency (RF) “spectrum crunch.” Haas and his colleagues are working to avoid this problem by unlocking the unique features of the visible light spectrum.

Harald Haas presents his vision for LiFi connectivity.

Compared to the relatively narrow RF spectrum, the visible light spectrum offers near-limitless capacity for communications. The shorter wavelength and inherent directionality of visible light means that it cannot penetrate obstacles like RF waves can, complicating issues like reliability and range, but increasing security because signals can be contained and delivered only to intended devices. Visible light also offers the possibility of vastly increased data throughput compared to RF.

These features of the visible light spectrum have been successfully adapted to communications through what Haas has termed LiFi (light fidelity). The LiFi systems developed by PureLiFi and Oledcomm are based on the approach of rapidly alternating the output of

PureLiFi’s dongle-sized LiFi device for PCs, which incorporates photoreceptor and LED components

PureLiFi’s dongle-sized LiFi device for PCs, which incorporates photoreceptor and LED components

LED lights and employing photodetectors to receive the signal. This capability is unique to LEDs, and the technology is the first that could combine basic illumination lighting with the ability to transmit data. This approach uses many components already in production, including stock LED and photodetector components, although the LEDs will rely on circuit boards integrated into lighting and attached to computers to encode and decode the signals.

This use of existing hardware and infrastructure makes the proposition of widespread LiFi installation different than previous shifts in communication technology, like Wi-Fi, that required the development of many new components. Connector companies that produce components for LED lighting like TE Connectivity, Molex, and Ideal Industries will find that many of the components already in production for LED lighting will have direct applications to this emerging communications technology.

While much of the lighting technology needed for LiFi already exists, the need for installation of microchips into a wide range of lighting currently makes the technology expensive compared to RF-based Wi-Fi for deployment on a large scale. However, the RF “spectrum crunch” of disappearing availability will eventually necessitate a solution like LiFi.

PureLiFi has announced a series of progressively smaller receiver units for use with PCs, including the February launch of dongle-sized LiFi-X. So far though, the company’s efforts remain largely experimental. According to Haas, the release will lay the groundwork for the next stage of partnership with lighting companies: “…With LiFi-X we can develop large-scale pilots. We now have a rail-track technology for the lighting industry to develop exciting and new business models around light as a service (LaaS).”

The other major player in the space, Oledcomm, has made progress toward offering commercial kits for creating LiFi systems in stores and museums, but even PureLiFi warns that the technology is still in its infancy and deployments lacking features like signal bi-directionality and multiple access will hamper the practical usefulness of current installations.

Molex LED Holder

Existing components, like Molex’s chip-on-board LED holders, can be adopted for LiFi systems.

The role of connectors in LED lighting has been discussed before. While LiFi’s effect on the landscape of connectorization for LEDs remains unclear, the technology is poised to significantly raise the profile of LED lighting and connectors from a rather straightforward story about illumination and efficiency to what could become a kingpin of wireless technology. However, according to Paul Golata, technical lighting specialist at distributor Mouser Electronics, a lack of commercial applications for LiFi has kept development of new components on the horizon: “Li-Fi is an exciting new technology that is presenting itself in the research and development phase and has not yet achieved penetration into industrial and commercial applications . . . Component manufacturers are certainly aware of this future market opportunity but to date have not publicly released any specifics related to evolving their product lines to adapt to this potential market.”

While LiFi-specific lighting components will eventually emerge as the technology becomes commercial, the use of a range of existing components raises the possibility of entering the market without major product redesign. This has not yet convinced sales and marketing teams to promote these new applications of old technology, however. Until real commercial applications of LiFi develop, manufacturers will have to make do with researchers like Harald Haas adapting their components as they see fit.

Neil Shurtz is a contributor to Connector+Cable Assembly Supplier based in San Francisco. As a freelancer and in his work in public relations for high-tech companies, he has written about technology in the oil and gas, aerospace, and manufacturing industries. Shurtz specializes in framing complex and niche technical topics in a broader social context. 

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