The World’s Largest Lighting Company Is Making Big Promises for a WiFi Alternative—But 5G Awaits

October 24, 2019, 9:13 AM UTC

The world’s largest lighting company thinks it has just the thing for people fed up with wobbly WiFi signals that cut out, slow down or don’t work at all in cafes, parks, airports and other public places where the technology can be deeply unreliable.

Signify—the former Philips Lighting—has for years been developing an alternative broadband technology that transmits the Internet using light waves from commercial LED light fittings rather than the radio waves of WiFi. Now, in a recently announced deal it’s teaming up with one of the world’s largest telecommunication firms, Vodafone, in a bid to turn the technology into a daily reality.

But for Signify and its cohorts in the lighting industry, marketing new transmission technology isn’t just an effort to expand into new markets. Since LED bulbs went mainstream and destroyed the lighting firms’ century-old business model of selling replacement bulbs, it’s about remaining relevant—or even just surviving. 

Guaranteed bandwidth

The technology is called LiFi (“Li” stands for light, as opposed to “Wi” for wireless), and it works by adding a signal modulator that rapidly starts and stops light signals in a manner imperceptible to the human eye, but which creates all the zeros and ones to which tablets, laptops, smartphones, modems, routers and the like are accustomed—a bit like fiber optics without the fiber.

“I will never say that LiFi will replace WiFi,” said Michel Germe, global head of LiFi systems at Eindhoven, Holland-based Signify. “But with LiFi you can guarantee high speed, and you can guarantee bandwidth.”

Providers of WiFi cannot honestly make such guarantees, because WiFi uses radio waves, which are subject to interference from a range of sources. For starters, they often clash with each other, causing annoying reception difficulties in public spaces where multiple WiFi networks compete for attention. 

The interference, as well as other factors inherent in WiFi, can cause delays, known as latency, which effectively slow down WiFi even if it has a nominally high bandwidth. In other words, WiFi often runs slow, no matter how many megabits per second its bandwidth rating is.

WiFi can also clash with the radio signals of sensitive medical equipment, or with digitized shop floor machinery, which is why WiFi networks are sometimes banned in those environments.

At the root of those problems is the unfortunate fact that there is simply not enough room in the radio spectrum to keep WiFi networks apart. And even if the entire radio spectrum were available to WiFi, the amount of available space would still pale in comparison to the light spectrum, which is between 1,000 and 10,000 times broader.

In another advantage, LiFi is generally more secure than WiFi, because determined outsiders can easily hack into unsecured radio signals, which spread out beyond windows and walls. Access to LiFi requires a direct line of site to the light source, making hacking from outside far less likely.

The technology’s possibilities prompted Vodafone’s German operation on Oct. 1 to team with Signify to potentially make LiFi part of Vodafone Deutschland’s 5G network, which Vodafone switched on in several German cities this year.

Pitfalls

The LiFi of the press releases sounds grand. But like any new and emerging technology, things aren’t quite as rosy as they appear.

One big impediment is that gadget users cannot receive LiFi signals unless they attach a specially equipped USB stick—known as a “dongle”—to their device. While computer and phone makers long ago started embedding WiFi receivers inside end user devices, they have yet to do so with LiFi.

The chipsets exist, but the Apples and Samsungs of the world have so far stayed away. One reason: a standards battle is dragging on, with Signify backing a design endorsed by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and others going for one approved by the Piscataway, NJ-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). On a related note, the costs will probably be prohibitive until mass adoption kicks in.

With the dongle posing a user inconvenience, commercial installations have been few and far between. In Signify’s case, the company has publicly identified 60 pilot installations, each a one-off trial, but none with any immediate large scale, enterprise-wide impact.

The most recent of those is at the Volkspark soccer stadium in Hamburg, Germany, which last month outfitted its press room with LiFi so that journalists can send their stories via the lightwaves rather than scrambling for WiFi access (which remains switched on).

The reviews at Hamburg so far could be better.

“We have not had any major technical issues, but as it is a rather new technology… there still seems to be potential for optimization, particularly in terms of user friendliness,” said Daniel Nolte, segment leader of area organization and infrastructure for Hamburger SV, the team that plays at and owns Volkspark. 

Most reporters have continued to opt for WiFi, although the few reporters who have chosen to use the LiFi “seem to be happy” with it, Nolte said, noting that the club leaves dongles out in the designated LiFi area. One problem has been that journalists who use Apple devices have to load extra software to drive them (Windows users do not). 

How LiFi fits in a 5G future

One major issue that neither Vodafone nor Signify has addressed is exactly how LiFi will fit into a 5G future—and whether that future might make LiFi irrelevant.

In recent months, network operators have begun rolling out 5G, the telecom world’s newest and fastest mobile network.

It is known to have difficulty penetrating walls and windows, which offers an opening for LiFi. But a big concern for Signify is that significant efforts are already underway to boost 5G indoors. Network operators—including AT&T, T-Mobile, KT, and Signify partner Vodafone—are eager to crack the challenge, and AT&T has said it will offer indoor 5G service at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Hardware technology companies such as Ericsson and Qualcomm, to name just two, are also working on the issue via various schemes, including one known as “distributed antenna systems.” And just this week, Intel and Corning teamed up to boost 5G indoors using software and other means.

“It’s early days,” said Germe, who believes that LiFi can be the means to carry 5G’s blistering speed indoors. Germe also notes that LiFi could be used to help driverless vehicles communicate with each other to assist in braking and steering instructions, and play other roles in machine-to-machine communications.

Staying relevant

Today, Signify is pushing on, and is expected to soon announce projects beyond its 60 pilots projects.

For Signify, LiFi is part of an ongoing and difficult transformation that the traditional lighting industry has been facing ever since LED bulbs went mainstream and, with their long life—they are designed to last for decades—undermined the century-old business model of selling replacement bulbs every 18 months or so.

Lighting companies are desperately trying to recast themselves as IT companies, using lights and the lighting infrastructure as the nodes and backbones of IT networks. LiFi is part of that effort for Signify; earlier this year, CEO Eric Rondolat told analysts that the technology is one of three key “new and promising growth platforms” at the company.

Signify will need something. The transformation towards digital technology has been a big financial burden that has forced it into a long and ongoing restructuring and headcount reduction. In 2018, the company twice revised its outlook downward before reporting that net income for the year declined 7.2% to €261 million as sales slipped to €6.36 billion. It is scheduled to report its 2019 third quarter on Oct. 25.

Signify is hardly alone in its painful transformation. The world’s second largest lighting company, Munich-based Osram, has suffered similar travails and is now up for sale. For its part, GE sold its struggling smart lighting group to New York private equity firm American Industrial Partners in a transaction that closed earlier this year.

At Signify, at least, the hope is that LiFi will help brighten up the balance sheet.

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