For years the tech industry has been talking up the possibility of transmitting data using light waves.

And while the technology appears to be still several years away from commercial products, there are signs of real progress.

Operators are looking for ways to augment traditional mobile phone and wifi radio spectrum and so-called lifi technology could be the next big thing.

People’s insatiable demand for high-speed data and streaming video has left network operators increasingly concerned over whether they’ll be able to keep up. Much of that concern centres on the limitations of bandwidth.

Traditional cellular radio technologies are constrained, and operators and regulators are scrambling to find new spectrum on which to provide service, particularly with the 5G era just around the corner.

Wifi provides an effective tool to extend cellular or fixed coverage into homes and businesses, but is difficult to seamlessly integrate into other networks and is racked with security vulnerabilities.

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By GlobalData

However, one important technology advancement may be just around the corner, and the key may lie in LED light bulbs that are increasingly being deployed as replacements for traditional incandescent bulbs.

According to P&S Market Research, major growth in LED lighting is expected through 2023, as homeowners replace existing bulbs and municipalities retrofit existing light poles with more efficient LED technology.

This is being done to improve efficiency and reduce energy costs, but lifi may provide another major incentive to move to LED.

What exactly is lifi and how does it work?

Lifi is short for light fidelity, a technology that allows users to transmit and receive data across visible light spectrum, as well as invisible infrared and ultraviolet light, in the same way that wifi (wireless fidelity) relies on radio frequencies.

Beyond the different transmitting technologies, however, the technologies essentially work the same way: plug a router into an access point via ethernet cable, connect an access point to a lifi-enabled LED light, and embed lifi connectivity into a smartphone, laptop or other endpoint in the same way that wifi is currently enabled in these devices.

Wifi and lifi have significantly different operating characteristics.

Lifi has significantly shorter range than WiFi; however, this challenge is potentially overcome by the much greater volume of LED lightbulbs from which to receive signals.

In addition, unlike wifi, lifi signals require a direct line-of-sight connection and cannot penetrate through walls.

However, while this represents a coverage challenge, it also greatly reduces the ability of potential hackers to break into wifi networks from outside.

Lifi is also free of interference challenges that often stymie wifi, which operates on unlicensed radio frequencies, and can enable ultra-accurate location capabilities that can pinpoint user location within as little as one centimetre.

It’s easy to envision a variety of early lifi use cases in areas where LED lighting will be ubiquitous. Indoor stadiums could achieve near-unlimited capacity.

Shopping centres could offer a variety of new offers to customers by knowing exactly what product they are standing near. Hospitals could perform remote surgery with extreme accuracy.

Smart cities installing LED lighting could introduce a variety of functions to improve city services.

That’s a lot of could, of course, and there is much R&D to be completed before lifi becomes a reality.

But, a host of network equipment and companies like Samsung and Philips are working feverishly to develop, test and eventually produce LiFi gear. That process is likely to take two to three years.