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Olin College Professor Receives NSF Grant to Study Wireless Data Transmission Using Visible Light

Olin College Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Siddhartan Govindasamy received a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research on Visible Light Communication (VLC).

VLC – also known as Li Fi - is a wireless technology that transmits high-speed data using the visible light spectrum.

Global wireless data traffic is set to grow tremendously in the next few years and current Wi-Fi speeds range between just 20 and 50 Mbps -- on a good day. Downloading large files -- such as movies -- still takes a long time, and in a crowded situation, capacity issues can make download and upload speeds even slower. Given the tremendous growth in demand for wireless communications predicted in the future, and the dwindling number of available radio frequencies, a number of organizations, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), have warned of an impending “spectral crunch”, where the capacity of traditional radio communications (e.g. Wi-Fi and cellular telephone) is insufficient to meet the demand.  Recently released studies show that mobile data traffic grew 74 percent in 2015 alone. That’s why it has become necessary to explore radically different means of communicating data wirelessly.

While the idea of using visible light to communicate information has been around since antiquity (think light houses), in the early part of this decade researchers started experimenting with using LED lights to transmit data. Since then the field has grown as the need for something to augment our current Wi Fi system has become more apparent.

The rate at which data that can be transmitted via Li-Fi has been clocked at 10 gigabits per second in laboratory settings. To put that in perspective, it is about 100 times faster than current Wi-Fi speeds, making it theoretically possible to download more than a dozen movies in a single second.

How does it work?  Currently, Wi-Fi uses radio frequencies to send information between devices. Li-Fi uses LED lighting whose light level is varied at extremely high speeds to transmit information. The variations in light levels are so fast that the naked eye cannot detect the flickering light.

Over the next two years, Govindasamy will be working with Olin students to “develop highly integrated systems which combine visible-light and radio communications.”

According to Govindasamy, “such integrated systems have the potential to provide the high data communications rates that the visible light channel can support, with improved reliability, as the radio channel is less susceptible to outages. Successful completion of this project will help move this promising new technology towards commercial deployment.”

Li-Fi has the potential to be more secure than Wi-Fi because light cannot pass through walls and is therefore less vulnerable to hacking. It also means there will be less interference between devices and fewer drop outs.

On the other hand, because most of our homes and offices are already equipped with the infrastructure for Wi-Fi, it is not likely that Li-Fi will completely replace the current system.

Still, as Govindasamy and others move forward with Li-Fi research, it means consumers may have access to a faster, more secure Internet system in the future.