Li-Fi’s latest champion: Cisco

June 27, 2022
The networking giant sees an opportunity to sell more gear. But a standards debate continues.

Networking stalwart Cisco, a longtime provider of gear for wired and radio frequency (RF) wireless connectivity such as Wi-Fi, is now starting to talk up the possibilities of Li-Fi, the stuck-on-the runway light-based technology intended to provide Wi-Fi–like service.

“Today, virtually all non-wired internet connections — including cellular networks — rely on the same radio frequencies weve been using since the 1890s,” Cisco principal engineer John Parello wrote recently on the Cisco Tech Blog, a section of Cisco’s website where the company promotes innovative ideas. “And, as you might expect, those frequencies out of habit are in demand for high-bandwidth, high-security, high-reliability wireless communications.

“Fortunately, with an emerging technology called Li-Fi we can get relief from crowded spectrums. By using light in place of radio waves to provide secure, high-performing wireless connections, Li-Fi can potentially revolutionize the access layer of the Internet as we know it.”

Parello is part of Cisco Innovation Labs, an incubation group that describes itself as helping “new ideas come to life.” Li-Fi is not new per se. It traces its commercial roots back to at least 2012, with the founding of Edinburgh, Scotland’s pureLiFi, then called pureVLC. The technology modulates lightwaves emitted by artificial light sources such as LEDs or lasers, and uses those to transmit data to laptops, phones, and tablets.

Li-Fi vendors such as pureLiFi and Signify have slowly added customers. For instance, both have sold Li-Fi to the U.S. Army, leveraging the security advantages that Li-Fi provides over Wi-Fi. But they have not yet shaped Li-Fi into a mainstream play.

Cisco is now speaking up for the technology, in a bid to help prod it out of prolonged fledgling status and give it flight.

One obstacle has been that device makers have not yet embedded Li-Fi chips into their wares, the way they do with Wi-Fi.

Related to that, the Li-Fi industry still seems split over standards. Some outfits such as pureLiFi are embracing the “802” protocols inscribed by the Piscataway, NJ–based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), while others such as Signify prefer protocols from the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

In his blog post, Cisco’s Parello advocates the IEEE approach — hardly a surprise given all the IEEE 802 technology prevalent throughout the Cisco wired and wireless universe.

“The time is ripe to take full advantage of the light spectrum as a better foundation for Wi-Fi connections,” writes Parello. “Not only is the necessary hardware — LEDs — cheap and easy to manufacture and install, but as weve demonstrated at Cisco light-based and radio-based communications can coexist using standards-based roaming like 802.11r. This means that the transition to Li-Fi can be made gradually and painlessly.”

Parello has been added to the speaker list at the Li-Fi Conference, a one day gathering tomorrow in Signify’s backyard in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, where presenters from pureLiFi, Signify, and other companies will advocate unity while at the same time voicing their preference for the IEEE or ITU approach.

In a chicken-or-egg conundrum, until the industry resolves some of its differences, prices of Li-Fi chipsets will remain high relative to Wi-Fi chipsets, continuing to discourage gadget makers from embracing Li-Fi.

But Li-Fi could get a boost as companies such as Kyocera SLD Laser and other developers of laser chips work their components into the business, offering much faster networking speeds than those supported by the LED chips that have been the Li-Fi mainstay so far.

MARK HALPER is a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

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About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.