Li-Fi, or light fidelity technology, has come a long way in the past couple of years. It's not so long since it was regarded as little more than a technical novelty which, while interesting, would not be able to compete with more established Wi-Fi technology in commercial applications.
However, this view is changing quickly. In the last couple of years, the number of real-world deployments has increased, and the technology is moving past the proof of concept stage to be a practical option for both large and small-scale applications.
With costs coming down significantly and the technology becoming more standardised and effective, it is quickly becoming ready for the mass market. So, what signs are there that this is likely to be a go-to option for many businesses in the coming years for ensuring fast, reliable wireless connectivity?
This year's Mobile World Congress (MWC) show in Barcelona, which took place at the end of February, gave many in the industry the chance to experience just how powerful Li-Fi has become. It featured a demonstration from PureLiFi, an Edinburgh-based startup that has been one of the pioneers of the technology. At the show, the firm was introducing its first solution capable of gigabit speed downloads, with uploads around 350Mbps.
This offers a significant boost on the previous generation of Li-Fi products, which were limited to data transfer rates of around 43Mbps, and should make it a much more practical option for tomorrow's businesses, where the need for fast speed and high bandwidth are growing all the time.
Chief executive of the firm Alistair Banham told eeNews Europe at the event: "In one year, we went from a 43Mbps data throughput to 1Gbps, and we have significantly shrunk our optical components. That’s in an environment completely stuffed with radio frequencies."
A growing user base
However, advances made in the lab will not be of much use if they cannot be translated to the real world and, on this front, Li-Fi is also quickly gaining ground. At the MWC event, PureLiFi noted it now has around 130 Li-Fi developments in 20 countries around the world, with the majority of these being in corporate offices and campuses.
The real next step for the industry, though, will be to add Li-Fi receivers to more consumer gadgets, to eliminate the need for additional dongles or plug-in modules. Until now, one of the barriers to this has been the size of the components needed, but as the technology advances, this is becoming less of an issue.
MWC saw demonstrations of older smartphones with Li-Fi receivers and transmitters added as peripherals, but in the coming years, it is hoped the technology will be fully incorporated, perhaps by around 2022, into the next generation of premium smartphones.
"We now have the right components at the right size and the right cost to have discussions with big OEMs for the integration of Li-Fi on their roadmap," Mr Banham said. "All the big brands are querying us about integration."
A more standardised environment
Another key factor in the future success of Li-Fi connectivity will be seamless integration between devices, and this will require clear standardisation guidelines to be put in place. If brands are using proprietary technology to connect devices to Li-Fi hardware, this could cause many headaches for operators and restrict the number of deployment options they have. However, the advent of a new standard from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) should help prevent such issues.
The standard, IEEE 802.11bb, is expected to be ratified around 2021, which will be the first stage in the development of Li-Fi products at mass scale, secure in the knowledge that any gadget from any manufacturer will be able to communicate easily with any other.
IEEE member Nikola Serafimovski, chair of the 802.11bb task group, says: "Li-Fi is the future of communications, with the potential to become a real mass-market technology. But to have mass-market growth, a standard is needed. Similar to what wireless communications development went through, Li-Fi must go through it as well."
With this process well under way, it is only a matter of time before Li-Fi is established as a standard method for wireless communications. While it is not intended that it will replace Wi-Fi, it is seen as a useful complementary solution that offers users more options and takes the pressure off crowded networks, leading to better, more reliable experiences for everyone.