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September 14, 2023

What to know about the new LiFi networking standard

While LiFi, or light-based networking, won’t replace WiFi, it will make new things possible in business, military and emergency response environments.

In the news

LiFi is 100 times faster than WiFi-based communication, and more secure to boot? Who wouldn’t say yes to that?

As always, though, you’ve got to read the fine print.

While WiFi is built around radio frequencies, LiFi (short for light fidelity) trades those radio waves for light. Recently, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) added 802.11bb as a standard for light-based wireless communication. Industry groups hailed the standard, as you would expect them to, crowing about LiFi’s “faster, more reliable wireless communications with unparalleled security compared to conventional technologies."

The truth about the benefits and drawbacks of LiFi is more complex. It’s true that speed is the big sexy advantage, but that advantage sags a bit when studied closely; while LiFi advocates want you to focus on the “up to” speed of 100Gbps, that IEEE spec notes maximum throughput of 9.6Gbps—which is in the same range as cutting-edge WiFi 6 routers.

As to the claims of improved security, they hold up; light, unlike radio frequencies, is a line-of-sight phenomenon that will not “leak” through walls and other solid objects. But line-of-sight brings limitations, too. WiFi tops LiFi for transmission over great distances, for example.

The Cognizant take

Despite its limitations, LiFi could be of great use as an augmenting technology in data centers and other business environments. Speedy business-to-consumer communication is one example, as the technology could allow consumers to engage with rich-content media, including high-resolution videos, at business conferences and in malls, trade shows, airplanes, etc. And because LiFi doesn’t interfere with radio frequency devices, it can be safely used in some hospital applications in which WiFi cannot.

LiFi's business-to-business potential is even greater. As Industry 4.0 continues to progress, advances in networking will be needed to maximize the strengths of such foundational technologies as artificial intelligence/machine learning, augmented and virtual reality and the Internet of Things, as the insights generated by IoT devices are most useful when they can be accessed quickly.

LiFi also has potential for military and emergency management uses. Consider the challenges around laying wires when setting up a command post during combat or a natural disaster. LiFi could ease matters considerably and, in a combat situation, would also be more secure than radio communication.

The LiFi community, led by various vendors, has laid the groundwork for myriad achievable use cases that will demonstrate the usefulness of the technology—and expose its weakness. LiFi has strong potential as an incremental advance in networking; the key is to view it as part of the picture, not as a replacement for WiFi.

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