Remember when the internet first entered our lives? In those days, getting online required tapping into a phone line. And dial up speeds were nothing to brag about.
But, back then, the internet wasn't exactly what it is now. We weren't streaming videos and music or playing online video games. Slower speeds weren't as big of a problem because the internet hadn't exploded quite yet.
Now, it's a different story. The way we use the internet has changed dramatically. It's no longer just a place where we look up information, it's a place where we do everything.
Because of this, cable companies and even mobile providers have been racing toward the next big breakthrough to make the web even faster. For many, that entails laying fiber cable in select cities throughout the country. For others, that means creating 5G networks right in users' homes.
But these aren't the only options being pursued. Researchers are also working on something called Li-Fi, which uses infrared light waves to create wireless networks that are said to be 100 times faster than today's fastest Wi-Fi.
What is Li-Fi?
The idea behind Li-Fi is that instead of using radio waves to send information like Wi-Fi does, Li-Fi will use light pulses to transmit information. The light pulses are way too fast for the human eye to detect, but electronic gadgets can easily pick them up.
The big advantage of Li-Fi is that it can transmit information up to 200 gigabits per second, where Wi-Fi is barely able to get past 1Gbps. Of course, Wi-Fi is steadily improving, but it still has a long way to go before it hits those speeds. And that isn't Li-Fi's only advantage.
With Li-Fi, it doesn't matter how many gadgets are in range; it could be one or thousands. Wi-Fi is restricted to a few dozen gadgets, meaning when there are hundreds of people in a small area, the network slows to a crawl.
That makes Li-Fi great for an office environment, shopping malls, airports, stadiums and other crowded venues. It could also be good in airplanes and buildings that don't play nicely with radio waves. Hospitals are also interested in it because the radio waves from Wi-Fi can interfere with medical equipment.
When will Li-Fi be available?
So, if Li-Fi is that great, why hasn't it taken over yet? While researchers are working hard to bring this new internet technology to consumers, it's estimated that it won't be available for around five more years.
This is due to some obstacles researchers are facing. The first is that Li-Fi requires LED lights to work, and special equipment has to be hooked into the lights. So, it is an additional expensive, although with many companies and venues upgrading to LED lighting anyway, this is actually not too big of a drawback.
The bigger hurdle is that gadgets have to be directly in the light to connect. So, accidentally getting between the gadget and the light, or even turning the gadget over, will break the connection.
Also, unlike radio waves, light doesn't go through walls. That means Li-Fi only works in rooms that have the lights on. That could be a good security measure, but it also means that you have to leave the lights on in any room that needs to have internet. That isn't much of a problem for companies, but for home use, it could be a concern.
Finally, Li-Fi is something of a one-way street. While it can push out information to gadgets at high speeds, gadgets need special lighting add-ons to communicate back. So, in an airport, Li-Fi would be a good way to push the departure board information, airport maps, movies, and more to gadgets, but most people aren't going to be able to ask it to pull up a specific website.
Still, researchers are continuing to work out the kinks, and it seems to work well in the places it's been tested. So you could be seeing it here in the U.S. soon.