Li-Fi vs. Li-Fi: Signify comes out swinging against the new IEEE standard (UPDATED)

July 24, 2023
The world's largest lighting company counters with the competing ITU approach.

When is a standard a standard?

That is the question that Li-Fi watchers could well be asking following the news last week that, at long last, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has ratified a standard for the technology.

Industry pioneer pureLiFi hailed the development as one that would pave the way for smartphone, tablet, and laptop makers to embed Li-Fi chips and thus facilitate mass adoption of the technology, moving it up from its small-scale place in wireless data communications.

While such a result could indeed prove to be the case, not everyone regards the newly approved IEEE 802.11bb as a tipping point.

Signify, the world’s largest LED lighting company, is not impressed.

“At this time, we’re not convinced of its benefits for large-scale commercial use,” the company told LEDs Magazine in an exclusive email exchange.

Signify, with its TruLiFi brand, adheres to a different standard, ITU-T G.9991 (sometimes referred to as ITU-T G.vlc) ratified by the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union in March 2019.

Neither the ITU approach nor the IEEE approach has yet led to mass adoption of Li-Fi, a wireless communication technology that connects devices to the internet via LED or laser-based optical frequencies rather than via the radio frequencies of Wi-Fi. Device makers have not yet embedded Li-Fi chips the way they have with ubiquitous Wi-Fi. That means that end users have to attach inconvenient dongles to use Li-Fi, which has curbed the uptake. 

Without mass adoption, prices of Li-Fi chips have remained high compared to Wi-Fi.

Edinburgh, Scotlandbased pureLiFi believes that 802.11bb will now make a big difference because it ensures interoperability between different vendors. As it is based on the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard, it facilitates an ecosystem of components common to each, and one that helps in end-user environments where Li-Fi and Wi-Fi hand off to each other. Wi-Fi chipmakers helped to hash out the standard  a difficult process that took about five years — which should help ensure the interoperability.

Signify believes otherwise. 

“The standard’s theoretical re-use of existing Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) chipsets is far from being a practical reality, as baseband signals are not directly accessible in today’s chipsets,” a Signify spokesperson told LEDs. Baseband chips handle the modulations of communication waves be they radio or light on both the device side and the transmission side.

“While there are workarounds for that problem, they will come at the expense of performance, size, heat dissipation issues and, inevitably, increased cost,” the spokesperson added.

“While we will continue to explore all new technologies, at this time we are convinced that by leveraging the ITU-T G.vlc standard in our TruLiFi products, we offer the best possible Li-Fi solutions serving a wide range of applications for our customers.”

Both the Geneva-based ITU, with its U.N. link, and New York Citybased IEEE, as a professional association, are influential standards setters.  

Another ITU adherent, France’s Oledcomm, has welcomed the ratification of 802.11bb, but says it will not be significant until chipmakers commit to modifications.

“In my opinion, the IEEE 802.11bb is a good step but will only be significant when the digital baseband makers (Intel, Broadcom, Qualcomm...) will integrate the 802.11b function on their roadmaps,”  Oledcomm CEO Benjamin Azoulay told LEDs last week.

“The Wi-Fi chip manufacturers need to make hardware and software changes of their Wi-Fi chips (roadmaps) to make them compatible with the 802.11bb,” he reiterated today. “The problem is that I have not seen any statement and any reaction from any Wi-Fi chip maker about 802.11bb.”

PureLiFi downplays how much baseband modification is required for Li-Fi, and emphasizes the readiness of the technology. LEDs will try to bring you more on the company’s position in a subsequent story as we continue to drill into the claims and counterclaims of the IEEE versus ITU camps.

Meanwhile, the ratification of 802.11bb has, if nothing else, revived the general discussion about Li-Fi’s present and future  a technology that for all its impressiveness has not yet found widespread commercial success since pureLiFi first commercialized it in 2012. During that time, it has evolved from a scheme that was going to use visible light to one that uses infrared frequencies. Lighting-related companies continue to be the ones that are pushing it, but they are doing so sometimes independently of illumination projects.

And while Li-Fi started out as a LED-based concept, pureLiFi and Oledcomm both see its future in lasers, which provide faster speeds than LEDs do. 

Signify will not reveal any plans it might have to shift toward laser-based Li-Fi. “We do not share details on our long-term technology roadmap, in which we'll continue to explore all new options,” the spokesperson told LEDs.

IEEE 802.11bb applies both to LED and laser. 

Li-Fi vendors hope to eventually establish the technology as a popular alternative to Wi-Fi. They envision the technologies as coexisting. Li-Fi will help offload the crowded Wi-Fi spectrum, will provide better security, and will be the preferred technology in environments like hospitals and factory floors where the electromagnetic interference of Wi-Fi’s radio waves are an issue, they say.

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

*Updated July 25, 2023 1:23 PM for clarification on standards organizations.

Follow our LinkedIn page for our latest news updates, contributed articles, and commentary, and our Facebook page for events announcements and more. You can also find us on Twitter.

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.