IEEE puts the spotlight on LiFi tech

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Fibre, cellular and Wi-Fi have been officially joined by an illuminating new network technology.

Standards body IEEE has given the rubber-stamp treatment to 802.11bb, also known as LiFi, which enables data transfer using light waves rather than radio frequencies. It is essentially an LED lightbulb that flickers so quickly it is imperceptible to the human eye – that flickering is light waves being modulated for the purposes of transmitting data to a receiver.

The technology has been in development for years now, but the lack of a globally-recognised standard to go with it means there has been little enthusiasm from OEMs to develop and commercialise LiFi-enabled products.

That could all change now, thanks to the release of the official LiFi standard.

“The release of the IEEE 802.11bb standard is a significant moment for the wireless communications industry,” said Nikola Serafimovski, VP of standardisation at pureLiFi, in a statement on Wednesday.

Based in Scotland, pureLiFi was founded in 2012 by Professor Harald Haas, who in 2011 coined the term LiFi and carried out the first public demonstration of the technology. Since then, pureLifi has developed a range of demo products, such as recessed spotlight fittings that double as LiFi hotspots, backhauling data over either power over Ethernet or powerline Ethernet.

With support from German telco R&D institute, Fraunhofer HHI, pureLifi has also been leading the standardisation effort, chairing the Light Communications 802.11bb task group since its formation in 2018.

“Through the activity of the 802.11bb task group, LiFi attracted interest from some of the biggest industry players ranging from semiconductor companies to leading mobile phone manufacturers,” said Serafimovski, who served as the group’s chair. “We worked with these key stakeholders to create a standard that will provide what the industry needs to adopt LiFi at scale.”

LiFi can support high throughput and low latency because the spectrum of visible light is bigger – much bigger – than radio spectrum. It also claims to be secure, because light cannot pass through opaque solid objects, making it harder for a passer-by to detect and intercept a LiFi signal. It also doesn’t need to be a bright light in order to work, nor does it require ambient light – LiFi can transmit data on infrared light.

One of its limitations though is that a LiFi dongle has to fall within line of sight of a LiFi hotspot in order to maintain a connection. Put a LiFi-enabled smartphone in your pocket, for example, and the connection drops. Or, walk from one room into another, and your device would need to connect to another hotspot.

Due to these limitations, LiFi is being developed as a tech that complements Wi-Fi, rather than competes with it. LiFi and Wi-Fi are designed to be completely interoperable, enabling devices to connect to the same LAN using either method.

“The IEEE 802.11bb standard is an important milestone for LiFi technology placing LiFi as a complementary and integrated technology alongside the highly successful Wi-Fi standard,” said Richard Webb, director, network infrastructure at analyst firm CCS Insight.

“This opens up exciting new opportunities for LiFi to work seamlessly with Wi-Fi and make communications better in a range of applications, from high-speed, secure Internet access in the home and office to expanding next generation experiences to wider markets such as XR and spatial computing,” he said.

“This is a significant moment for the LiFi industry, as it provides a clear framework for the deployment of LiFi technology on a global scale,” added pureLiFi CEO Alistair Banham. “We are proud to have played a leading role in its creation and to be ready with the world’s first standards-compliant devices. The existence of a global standard gives confidence to device manufacturers who will deploy LiFi at scale.”


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