With 5GHz Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity readily available in the UK, a new wireless standard may seem like overkill – however, this new communication standard leaves existing technology in the dust with regards to data speeds, boasting 100x faster downloads than a conventional Wi-Fi connection. It’s called Li-Fi, and it’s slightly different to anything we’ve ever seen. Here, we explain just what Li-Fi is, how it works, how secure it is and when we can expect to start seeing Li-Fi enabled devices. Read next: How to change your Wi-Fi router settings
What is Li-Fi?
So, first things first – what exactly is Li-Fi? The term was first coined by German physicist Harald Haas at a TED talk back in 2011, where he discussed the idea of using lightbulbs as routers. He took this idea and, together with a group from the University of Edinburgh, founded pureLiFi a year later. The idea behind Li-Fi is to use a form of visible light communication (VLC – not to be confused with the popular media player) instead of radio waves like conventional Wi-Fi routers, enabling much faster data transfer speeds. VLC technology delivers high-speed, bi-directional mobile communications similar to Wi-Fi, but in a much more secure way.
In fact, Li-Fi technology is able to increase bandwidth by 100 times and recently managed to achieve 1Gbps real-world results during testing, while boasting a theoretical top speed of 224Gbps. This means that you’d be able to download 18 1.5GB movies in a single second. We’ll let that sink in. The technology isn’t affected by the the number of devices using the signal either, a massive bonus when compared to traditional Wi-Fi technology.
How does Li-Fi work?
While that all sounds well and good, how does Li-Fi actually work? Standard LED lightbulbs use a constant current, which emits a constant stream of photons perceived by us as visible light. Li-Fi is different because the current it uses varies, meaning that the output intensity of the light fluctuates.
LEDs are semiconductors so the current and output can be modulated at high speeds, which is picked up via a photodetector device (the equivalent to a Wi-Fi networking card in your PC). The optical output is then converted back into an electrical current, which is processed and sent to your device as data. The varying light intensity is invisible to the naked eye, making it about as noticeable as Wi-Fi signals.
See the below infographic from pureLiFi to help make explaining the technology a little clearer.
Is Li-Fi secure?
So it’s like Wi-Fi, but faster and uses lights instead of radio waves to transfer data. But light-based communication isn’t very secure, is it? Surprisingly so – in the case of Li-Fi anyway. Li-Fi is short range, which usually wouldn’t be a feature to boast about, but a smaller range means you’ll have to be much closer than Wi-Fi to use it, making it more secure. It doesn’t work through walls either, providing a much higher level of security ideal for use in offices. Basically, if someone was going to hack your Li-Fi network, they’d have to be stood underneath/near a light source in order to do so – which we doubt will happen very often.
When will I be able to use Li-Fi?
Li-Fi sounds great – but when will we be able to use it in our homes and businesses? Even though Li-Fi was only a concept in 2011, it seems as if Li-Fi will become common place sooner rather than later. Well maybe not common place, but it pureLiFi announced recently that it has partnered with a French industrial-lighting company and confirmed that it’ll be rolling out Li-Fi technology in its products by Q3 of 2016.
However, don’t throw away your conventional Wi-Fi router just yet, as the technology isn’t meant to replace Wi-Fi – it’s meant to work alongside it. Li-Fi doesn’t work outside, so public Wi-Fi hotspots would still need to be used, and Wi-Fi is so deeply integrated into modern society that it’d be a massive headache to replace the wireless standard.
With that being said, Haas imagines a bright future where lighting and internet access are provided via a single medium; the lightbulb. "All we need to do is fit a small microchip to every potential illumination device and this would then combine two basic functionalities: illumination and wireless data transmission," Haas said. "In the future, we will not only have 14 billion lightbulbs, we may have 14 billion Li-Fis deployed worldwide for a cleaner, greener and even brighter future."
Read next: Best Wi-Fi routers of 2016