LiFiTwo parallel technologies announced almost simultaneously promise that you could soon enjoy mobile data connectivity like nothing you’ve ever had before – for anything from seamless audiobook streaming to gigabyte data backups on the fly. In a new paper, “Passive Wi-Fi: Bringing Low Power to Wi-Fi Transmissions,” researchers at the University of Washington have introduced: “Passive Wi-Fi that demonstrates for the first time that one can generate 802.11b transmissions using backscatter communication, while consuming 3–4 orders of magnitude lower power than existing Wi-Fi chipsets.” This could be especially useful in the low-power and InternetofThings (IoT) space already being populated by the likes of the Amazon Dash buttons. Meanwhile, French start-up Oledcomm, at the Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, has demonstrated “Li-Fi, featuring Internet access 100 times faster than Wi-Fi with revolutionary wireless technology.”

According to the AFP report, Li-Fi “uses the frequencies generated by LED bulbs – which flicker on and off imperceptibly thousands of times a second – to beam information through the air.” At this point, it is still at technology demonstration stage, and suffers from some disadvantages. Current mobile devices need a dongle or other peripheral to use Li-Fi. Furthermore, its signals obviously need to be line-of-sight, unlike WiFi, which can travel through walls. These drawbacks could be compensated for by its potentially huge data transfer rates: “theoretical speeds of over 200 Gbps – fast enough to ‘download the equivalent of 23 DVDs in one second,’ the founder and head of Oledcomm, Suat Topsu, told AFP.” And of course, none of those fabled WiFi health risks.

The creators of both technologies are pitching heavily for the IoT space. “Wi-Fi has traditionally been considered a power-consuming system,” concludes the University of Washington paper. “Thus, it has not been widely adopting in the sensor network and IoT space where low-power devices primarily transmit data. We believe that, with its orders of magnitude lower power consumption, passive Wi-Fi has the potential to transform the Wi-Fi industry.” Meanwhile, Oledcomm’s Topsu speaks of networking coffee machines, washing machines, and even toothbrushes.

Where the convergence point lies between these two technologies and other equally promising wireless data developments such as the 802.11af technology already covered by Chris Meadows remains to be seen. But I can certainly envisage even lower-powered, longer-lasting, wireless-connected e-readers and epaper devices in the offing – as well as networked toothbrushes.


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