What Is LiFi, and Is It Better Than WiFi?

WiFi is as ubiquitous as the internet, but chances are, not many people are familiar with LiFi – Light Fidelity. On the surface, LiFi is very similar to WiFi: both technologies connect users to the internet. However, LiFi is much more than that, and it may even be better than WiFi in some cases.

We were recently invited by Signify – formerly known as Philips Lighting – to check out its LiFi implementation, where the company discussed about the advantages (and disadvantages) of the technology. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

As its name suggests, LiFi connects users to the internet through light waves, in contrast to WiFi’s use of radio waves. This makes LiFi ideal for environments where the use of WiFi (or radio waves, in general) is not ideal. In that sense, LiFi is an alternative solution to WiFi.

On top of that, as LiFi relies on light waves to transmit data, it is not affected by network congestion either. This, in turn, makes for a more stable internet connection.

So how does LiFi work in the real world? Let’s take Signify’s implementation as an example. First, you’ll need to plug in an ethernet cable to Signify’s LiFi-enabled light fixture. Once you’ve done that, all you need to do is to connect a dedicated LiFi USB access dongle to your laptop or PC.

And…that’s basically it. You’re now connected to the internet via LiFi. The light fixture will transmit data down to the LiFi dongle – this is done through modulation, where the light will “flicker” at a frequency that’s invisible to the human eye – while the dongle itself will use infrared to upload data back to the light fixture.

This sounds like something out of a futuristic concept, but it really does work as seamlessly as that. However, it is not perfect: there are a couple of disadvantages to Signify’s LiFi technology.

The most evident downside to LiFi technology – in its current state, at least – is the fact that you need a line of sight between the light fixture and LiFi dongle; nothing can come in between these two items. Say someone walks up to your desk and casts a shadow on the LiFi dongle – you’ll immediately be disconnected from the internet.

Bandwidth is also another issue. According to Signify, its current LiFi technology can only support speeds up to 30Mbps. Upload speed, on the other hand, is limited to 8Mbps. Now, “regular” users who only use the internet for web browsing and video streaming will be alright with this kind of speed, but professional users will need much more.

However, it’s worth noting that LiFi has the potential to be much, much faster than this – emphasis on the potential. In lab tests, scientists managed to reach speeds up to 224Gbps with LiFi. That’s ridiculously fast.

Despite these disadvantages, LiFi does afford users one very vital benefit: privacy. Because you need a direct line of sight to the light fixture to get connected, there’s no way for anyone else to get access to the network without actually being in the physical space. In environments where network security is of utmost importance, LiFi will be much preferred over WiFi.

At the end of the day, LiFi isn’t here to replace WiFi – not for the time being anyway. Rather, it serves as an alternative in environments where WiFi isn’t the most ideal solution, and that’s where Signify’s LiFi technology comes in. In fact, it’s already working with a number of companies in various industries like banking and automotive to implement its LiFi system.

Currently, Signify’s LiFi solution is not available to the general public, and it will be a while before the technology is mature enough to be widely adopted. Not only is LiFi a relatively new technology, there’s also no regulation yet, unlike WiFi.

But Signify’s LiFi solution does give us a glimpse of what’s possible in the near future, and it shows that it’s very possible to implement LiFi in today’s environment. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s definitely a good start.