Edinburgh Friends

Closing the Digital Divide

60% of the world’s population is excluded from the benefits of basic internet access. But innovative technology developed at Edinburgh is set to provide a solution that could revolutionise digital services around the world.

Professor Harald Haas
Professor Harald Haas / Photo: Laurence Winram

“Imagine an end to the digital divide,” says a clearly buoyed Professor Harald Haas, the University’s Chair of Mobile Communications. His pioneering LiFi technology, which uses the visible light spectrum to transmit data, has just been named one of 81 ‘bold ideas’ by the 100&Change programme – an initiative run by the influential MacArthur Foundation, which seeks to creatively address the world’s greatest challenges.

Li-Fi stands for Light Fidelity and works by using off-the-shelf LED light bulbs to transmit wireless data at extremely high speeds. While traditional Wi-Fi uses radios and antennas, LiFi achieves the same functionality, but by using the light around us.

“The benefits are plentiful,” says Professor Haas. “We have so many light sources around us, and it’s forecast that there will be half a billion LED lights sold this year.

“Now consider that all of those LED lights are essentially high-speed transmitters – that’s an abundant resource that has the potential to transform our lives in terms of connecting ‘everything to everything’.”

And transforming lives is at the heart of the MacArthur Foundation’s recognition of Professor Haas’s work. With 60% of the world’s population (around 4.3 billion people) essentially excluded from the benefits that internet access brings – an issue that will only deepen with time as more developed economies become increasingly data-centric – there is a huge disparity between rich and poor. LiFi offers a very real and cost effective solution to addressing this and improving data access in remote areas.

“Access to the Internet is fundamental to communities’ abilities to escape poverty,” says Professor Haas. “Remote areas, particularly in the developing world, have little or no access to the internet because of the logistical and financial obstacles of delivering connectivity to them.

“LiFi data communication can be built around existing infrastructures, with ordinary solar panels doubling up as LiFi receivers. With effective long-distance data transmission possible using lasers and self-powered relay stations, LiFi will enable affordable high-bandwidth internet access, particularly in remote and resource poor areas.”

LiFi could be beneficial for the developed world, too. Large areas of the USA and Canada are currently unserved by broadband internet, and demands on existing WiFi and mobile data provision show no signs of relenting, two problems the light-powered technology could address.

And LiFi is extremely practical:

“It works underwater”, says Professor Haas. “And it works in intrinsically safe environments – petrochemical plants and oil platforms, for example.

“It’s also very secure, as light doesn’t penetrate through walls, meaning no-one can easily intercept the connection.”

But the real excitement for Professor Haas comes from the possibility to close the so-called digital divide:

“The gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not is driving inequality in fundamental ways”, he says. “This includes in health, education, and the capacity for democratic participation.

“With LiFi we have a very achievable, future-proof solution to this global problem.”

LiFi Lowdown

The benefits of Li-Fi emerge as a result of unlocking the vast amount of license-free and secure electromagnetic spectrum that lies in the infrared and visible light regions.

The key benefits are:

  • Wireless infrastructures are enhanced by the provision of an additional layer of small cells known as ‘attocells’
  • LiFi avoids the radio frequency spectrum crunch resulting in 10,000 times more capacity
  • LiFi enables very high peak data rates (10 Gbps)
  • LiFi will enable of the ‘Internet-of-Things’ by allowing online access on 100 times more devices
  • Significantly enhanced security through the reduction of intercepted signals
  • Enhanced energy-efficiency by combining data communication and illumination
  • Complete elimination of health concerns

Learn more

If you would like to find out more about LiFi and further opportunities for involvement, please contact Roy Biddle at Development and Alumni on +44 (0)131 651 4364 or roy.biddle@ed.ac.uk.

LiFi Centre