Shedding Light on an Alternative to Wi-Fi
There’s no doubt about it: Wi-Fi is increasingly vital to our everyday lives. Not only do we have the technology in our homes, but it’s in our coffee shops, our workplaces — even our handheld devices. According to market estimates, by 2012, 1 billion Wi-Fi-equipped electronic devices will have been shipped off for sale to consumers. And Wi-Fi is expected to appear in other devices as well, including digital TVs.
However, there’s new wireless communication technology in the works. Through a grant provided by the National Science Foundation, three universities — Boston University (BU), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico — have teamed up to form the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center (Smart Lighting ERC). BU’s role in the project focuses on a new application of an old concept: using light waves for communications between devices around the home, one outcome of which will be a wireless Internet network.
Many of us are likely to ask: Why mess with something new when we already have Wi-Fi, which is getting better all the time? Thomas Little, Ph.D., a professor at BU and associate director of the Smart Lighting ERC, has the answer.
According to Little, while the public sees Wi-Fi as the “be all and end all” of wireless Internet, it has its weaknesses. For example, Wi-Fi, which uses radio frequency technology and penetrates walls, has a very large carbon footprint, he said. It also poses security issues.
The current research project proposes using LEDs to address both of these issues.
“[The use of LEDs] is one way we can [move toward energy independence] by cutting the use of energy by as much as 20 percent in some cases,” Little said. Their energy efficiency is one reason LEDs soon will replace our current incandescent and florescent lights, he added.
In a world in which the goal to reduce our carbon footprint is becoming increasingly urgent, “we expect to be replacing all these bulbs anyway, and we have an opportunity to influence the design [to provide wireless communications],” Little said. “[Smart lighting with LEDs also] improves security; it improves bandwidth density — the ability to have a lot of bandwidth in a small volume.”
Also, the data rates experienced with LED networking have exceeded a megabit per second, he said. And in the new research, this is expected to move into the gigabit range.
This may seem like a surreal concept: getting Internet connectivity from your indoor LED lighting to various devices in the room, including your laptop, printer, clock, PDA — even your home’s thermostat. But the idea is not new, Little said.
“Think of ship-to-ship communication with light,” he said. “The concept has been around a long time. I can flash a light on and off and in conveying Morse code between ships with a spotlight. [Smart lighting uses] the same idea. The difference, though, is I can do that very quickly with LEDs.”
Little said the widespread use of smart lighting for wireless networking will depend in large part on the industry partners involved in the research project.
“[It] is really embedded in how fast these companies are prepared to miniaturize and take these ideas and make them cost-effective,” he said. “About a year ago, it was very difficult to find the [LED] bulbs available for consumer use. Twelve months later, I can go on the Web and buy LED lighting that I can put in my home. So in the course of the year there has been radical change, and we think a reasonable time frame for an access point might be one to two years from now.”
However, Little noted there likely will be some skeptics who will resist the initial adoption of the smart lighting model.
“I think with a lot of technological innovation, you have to go out on a limb to try new things to prove to other people, in fact, there are benefits,” he said. “And there are some nice characteristics of light that we can exploit.”
– Meagan Polakowski, firstname.lastname@example.org