We may be witnessing the birth of a new internet technology which will make today's Wi-Fi networks seem as slow as a horse and cart in a country lane. Real-world tests have proven the efficacy of 'Li-Fi', which transmits data using the visible spectrum instead of radio waves.
Estonian start-up Velmenni carried out a successful test of Li-Fi this week in Tallinn. The method uses a light source, for example an LED bulb, an internet connection and a photo detector. An alternative name for the innovation is Visible Light Communication or VLC.
According to the BBC, lab tests showed that speeds of 224Gbps were possible using Li-Fi; this week's office-based test achieved data transmission at 1Gbps, almost 100 times faster than Wi-Fi. Similar results were achieved in an industrial environment.
Li-Fi is the brainchild of Professor Harald Hass of Edinburgh University, who presented a TED talk on the subject at a conference in 2011. The video of his presentation, which has now been viewed almost two million times, showed an LED lamp streaming video. Hass predicted that the technique could be used to create wireless hotspots from lightbulbs.
Beside speed, there are some major advantages and drawbacks to Li-Fi in comparison with Wi-Fi. Whereas Wi-Fi causes significant interference with other systems, for example in hospitals and aeroplanes, Li-Fi can be used safely in any setting.
As they are based on light, Li-Fi waves cannot travel through walls or around corners. On the one hand, this makes it a less flexible system than Wi-Fi, which can provide data to a whole building through one transmitter. On the other hand, this limitation could be an advantage in terms of security and privacy.
Li-Fi also cannot be used where natural light would interfere with the signal, for example in direct sunlight. Industry experts anticipate that its initial use will be limited to supplementing Wi-Fi in busy urban areas and providing coverage in areas where interference is a problem.