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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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What Could LiFi Mean For Enterprise WiFi?

There's a lot of hype these days about LiFi. While the light-based technology is promising, it won't replace WiFi in the enterprise anytime soon.

There's been a lot of talk recently about LiFi, the cool-sounding technology that uses light as a transmission medium, the same way that WiFi uses RF. It’s still way too early in the LiFi development cycle to predict what it will really mean to enterprise networks. At the same time, pundits are using phrases like “alternative to WiFi” liberally, so it’s worth doing a reality check on what role LiFi could play in real business network environments.

For those who haven’t read about LiFi yet, let’s do a brief overview. The technology has been around, at least in lab trials, since 2011. It has shown in controlled environments that light can carry data at rates up to 224 Gbps between the light source and a simple USB-connected detector on the client device. Outside of the lab, rates between a few Mbps and one gig have been achieved.

LiFi is part of the family of Visual Light Communications (VLC) with roots in 802.15.x standards, but doesn't seem to map exactly to any existing IEEE standard. Limited office-environment trials on prototype gear are under way, and the promise of using light instead of RF is exciting because there is an order of magnitude more spectrum available than the few hundred MHz dedicated to WiFi.

The buzz is certainly warranted, as LiFi does have a lot of promise. But as happens with so many technologies, the hype is well ahead of any demonstrated real enterprise applicability. As a network administrator, here are my thoughts on LiFi.

The media is awash in claims like “LiFi lets you download 18 movies every second!” Sounds great, but it’s a goofy metric based on that 224 Gbps lab exercise. Even if that data rate were sustainable outside of the lab, we’d have to consider the uplink capacities and backplanes available on edge switches that would connect to LiFi access points, not to mention the ISP pipes required to pull that off.

There’s also the fact that light doesn’t penetrate walls, and some large rooms would need multiple LiFi lights to keep the intensity at a level that delivers these massive data rates. So, our switch port counts also just increased by a significant multiplier, as did the UPS and electrical requirements upstream in the closets.

The obvious questions about what happens when the lights go out, or in full sunlight when detectors are “whited out” can’t be ignored, and will eventually be answered. It seems fairly obvious that LiFi won’t replace WiFi anytime soon, but could augment it. This poses interesting dilemmas: How would a client device roam from LiFi to WiFi? Would LiFi eventually support strong encryption and authentication protocols? What would an NMS look like that manages WiFi and LiFi as a dual-technology system? How hard would it be for a hacker to pop in his own LiFi eavesdropping device and bridge it to rogue WiFi for longer range?

Maybe LiFi will be relegated to the Internet of Things (IoT), or at least the Internet of Things That Don’t Need To Function In The Dark, and operated in parallel to WiFi. Or, perhaps as our collective thirst for WiFi spectrum exceeds what the FCC can deliver, today’s WLAN industry players will coalesce as giant brain trust on LiFi and answer all of the challenging questions that wireless networking pros have today.

It’s just too early to tell where LiFi is really going. Yes, it is fascinating technology, and will likely have some role beyond downloading 18 movies a second a foot away from a LiFi access point.

Lee is a Wireless Network Architect for a large private university. He has also tought classes on networking, wireless network administration, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronic Warfare systems technician ... View Full Bio
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virsingh211
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virsingh211,
User Rank: Ninja
12/21/2015 | 10:29:16 AM
Re: OpenAI and LiFi
I agree you Brian, i found new terminology as Bg-Fi which is a Li-Fi system consisting of an application for a mobile device, like an IoT device, with color sensor, microcontroller, and embedded software. Light from the mobile device display communicates to the color sensor on the consumer product, finally one good thing is progress is simultaneously moving considering updated devices.
aditshar1
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aditshar1,
User Rank: Ninja
12/21/2015 | 12:05:22 AM
Re: LiFi Mobility
We currently have Wi-Fi infrastructure and ripping all of this out to replace it with Li-Fi technology is not feasible, so the idea is to retrofit the devices we have right now to work with Li-Fi technology. Apart from this do we need any addition in our smart devices to connect to LiFi, if yes then path becomes little tough.
lbadman132
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lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2015 | 3:52:32 PM
Re: LiFi Mobility
Thanks for reading, everyone. Mistermultipath, you ask a great questions and I don't have much in the way of answers. But I certainly do wonder right along with you. It *seems* that you should be able to roam between light cells, but that roaming has got to be pretty frequent given how many different light bulbs you pass under in a given building. Then will there be sticky clients, etc like with Wi-Fi? I wish there was more available on the MAC layer, and you have to wonder if a LiFI Alliance might emerge as sister org to Wi-Fi Alliance down the time line. Much to ponder!

 

Lee
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
12/17/2015 | 10:59:03 PM
Re: OpenAI and LiFi
@virsingh211, good point. There are a few firms that are utilizing smart lighting to deliver real-time and valuable BI.

If a business has found the use case that delivers high ROI for LED lighting connected to the network then, adding LiFi connectivity is going to increase the overall value of the system. However, if LiFi connectivity is the primary driver to change the entire lighting (and power management) system then, the economics does not seem to be in its favor.

Additionally, technology that is created in a sterile/clean/non-competitive environment such as, WiFi can grow rapidly. In turn, the growth allows for economies of scale to decrease the cost of the technology enabling it to grow further. Subsequent technology that is created (LiFi) will be in a competitive environment and it will have to enable a level of value that is greater than the reigning technology or create a new niche. 
mistermultipath
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mistermultipath,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/17/2015 | 12:06:17 PM
LiFi Mobility
Lee:

Great post as always.   I am interested in the mobility aspects of the technology. You mentioned a hand-off between Wi-Fi and Li-Fi.  What about hand-offs between Li-Fi portals?  Is direct line of site needed?  Can a Li-Fi client device truly be mobile.  I also would be very interested in the MAC layer that would be develped for the technology and what kind of tools could be used for diagnostics and design.

 

 
virsingh211
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virsingh211,
User Rank: Ninja
12/17/2015 | 1:17:51 AM
Re: OpenAI and LiFi
@Brian: As per Deepak Solanki, CEO of Estonian tech company, Velmenni, they are doing a few pilot projects within different industries where they can utilise and test the VLC (visible light communication) technology. If we succeed in this technology, 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. May be illumination devices would cost you more now. LOL. 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
12/16/2015 | 8:45:51 PM
OpenAI and LiFi
Generally, I am optimistic that AI (as and if it develops) will not decide to declare war on humans. However, since the concern might turn out to be real, LiFi could be used on future AI robots and the robots would be restricted from using RF communication. This would create a control environment that everyone could use because, operating a flashlight is easy -- operating a RF jammer is a bit more complicated.
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