At last: IEEE approves a Li-Fi standard (UPDATED)

July 13, 2023
The new 802.11bb now sits alongside the 802.11 of Wi-Fi. But will an ITU alternative curb the enthusiasm?

Li-Fi passed a significant mile marker on its marathon road to mass adoption, as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) finally approved a standard for its use.

Although more challenges lie ahead not the least of which is an alternative technology endorsed by the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) supporters of the IEEE approach hope that the ratification of IEEE 802.11bb will encourage makers of laptops, tablet, and phones to embed Li-Fi chips.

Such a move would make it more likely that consumers and business users would then start to use light-based Li-Fi for wireless internet use in a manner similar to today's ubiquitous radio frequency (RF)based Wi-Fi, which adheres to the IEEE 802.11 standard. Li-Fi transmits data via modulated lightwaves generated by either LEDs or lasers. The waves can come from the visible light of a room’s luminaires, or they can come from the invisible spectrum, typically from infrared chips that are not part of the illumination scheme.

Device makers have by and large not embedded Li-Fi chips, for reasons related to the lack of standards and to the high price of Li-Fi chips compared to Wi-Fi. End users thus have to take the extra step of attaching a USB stick or other type of dongle that supports two-way data communication between the device and the light source. This has limited the uptake of a technology that is now into its 12th commercial year.

While there is no guarantee that phones, tablets, and laptops will soon include the technology, leading vendors and developers such as Edinburgh, Scotland's pureLiFi are hopeful.

"PureLiFi is delighted to see the release of the IEEE 802.11bb standard," said CEO Alistair Banham in a press release announcing the approval. "This is a significant moment for the Li-Fi industry, as it provides a clear framework for the deployment of Li-Fi technology on a global scale. We are proud to have played a leading role in its creation and to be ready with the world's first standards-compliant devices. The existence of a global standard gives confidence to device manufacturers who will deploy Li-Fi at scale."

One reason for the optimism is that gadget makers, as well as the chip makers that supply them, helped to devise the IEEE standard. The IEEE imprimatur has been a trying process that began at least five years ago. 

"Through the activity of the 802.11bb task group, Li-Fi attracted interest from some of the biggest industry players ranging from semiconductor companies to leading mobile phone manufacturers," said Nikola Serafimovski, pureLiFi's vice president of standardization, who chaired the 802.11bb task group. "We worked with these key stakeholders to create a standard that will provide what the industry needs to adopt Li-Fi at scale."

German research and development group Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) was another major contributor to developing the standard.

"Fraunhofer HHI welcomes the new IEEE standard 802.11bb," said Dominic Schulz, who heads up Li-Fi development for the Berlin-based outfit. "Li-Fi offers high-speed mobile connectivity in areas with limited RF, like fixed wireless access, classrooms, medical, and industrial scenarios. It complements or serves as an alternative to Wi-Fi and 5G. 802.11bb integrates easily with existing infrastructures."

Li-Fi proponents have long advocated that, if nothing else, Li-Fi can help to offload the Wi-Fi spectrum and help avoid the clashing signals often encountered with the radio technology. They also note that it is more secure than Wi-Fi, as it requires line of sight to access. That is one reason why vendors such as pureLiFi and Signify have found some success with military deployments

And, as Fraunhofer's Schulz pointed out, Li-Fi does not have the same electromagnetic interference issues that make Wi-Fi an ill-advised choice in environments with other radio-based operations, such as hospitals and on factory floors, where Li-Fi can help robots communicate.

The ratification by the IEEE (which is headquartered in New York City but operates largely out of Piscataway, N.J.) should also help facilitate handoffs between 802.11 Wi-Fi and 802.11bb Li-Fi as users move about a facility.

Volker Jungnickel from Fraunhofer HHI, technical editor of the task group, commented on the importance of a global Li-Fi standard: "The IEEE 802.11bb standard is a critical step to enable interoperability between multiple vendors. It allows for the first time Li-Fi solutions inside the Wi-Fi ecosystem. This is essential for the development of new and innovative applications." "He continued, "Li-Fi can replace cables by short-range optical wireless links and connect numerous sensors and actuators to the internet. We believe that this will create a future mass market. Fraunhofer HHI is looking forward to work with Li-Fi vendors from lighting and communication industries to make this a reality."

However, as device makers evaluate whether to now build Li-Fi into their gear, they will be mindful that the IEEE's 802.11bb might not be the ultimate standard that it could be. That's because another international body, Geneva, Switzerland-based ITU, has its own Li-Fi scheme, called ITU-T G.9991.

ITU adherents include Signify and Oledcomm, both of which have clout in the Li-Fi market. ITU technology also underpins the networking schemes of the Beaverton, Ore.based HomeGrid Forum of which Oledcomm and Signify are both members. HomeGrid is an industry alliance committed to wireless interoperability not just in the home but also in commercial markets.

Oledcomm, based near Paris in Vélizy-Villacoublay, markets Li-Fi gear that uses ITU-styled “baseband” chips made by Carlsbad, Calif.–based MaxLinear. Baseband describes the chips that handle modulation of light or radio communication waves on both the device side and the transmission side. Oledcomm builds its circuitry in a manner that could also work with the IEEE approach.

“In my opinion, the IEEE 802.11bb is a good step but will only be significant when the digital baseband makers (such as Intel, Broadcom and Qualcomm) will integrate the 802.11b function on their roadmaps,” Oledcomm CEO Benjamin Azoulay told LEDs Magazine. (Azoulay, who had briefly shared the CEO post, has been sole CEO since March.) “And we do not yet have visibility/transparency on that.”

Neither Signify nor pureLiFi responded by press time to queries from LEDs Magazine regarding the ongoing Li-Fi market ramifications of IEEE versus ITU.

Meanwhile, in comments made on the BBC radio program The Life Scientific (registration might be required) two weeks ago, pureLiFi co-founder Harald Haas told interviewer Jim Al-Khalili that he expects smartphone makers to start integrating Li-Fi circuits "in the next two years." 

Haas is widely regarded as the father of Li-Fi. He now wears many hats, including chief scientific officer at pureLiFi, adviser to Santa Barbara, Calif. laser maker Kyocera SLD Laser, and professor of electronic and electrical engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where he is also the director of the LiFi Research and Development Centre.

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

*Updated July 24, 2023 to clarify baseband technology description.

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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.