Data from the Light Bulb

The growing Internet of Things needs higher data transmission capacities. That is why industry and scientific research are not only concerned with the expansion of existing networks. They are also sounding out entirely new transmission routes. Two current examples are Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks and Visual Light Communications (VLC).




M2M modules that can run for ten years on a single AA battery and cost less than five US dollars are the stated aims of current endeavors to set up LPWA networks. The plan is for a new, low-cost connectivity in the frequency range of less than one gigahertz.


In contrast to classical mobile network connections with higher bandwidths, LPWA connections are intended only for simple messages with a low data volume. High coverage and low energy consumption are the key criteria – even if the connections are characterized by low bandwidths and high latency.


Huge market potential


According to an LPWA study by Analysis Mason the addressable market for LPWA services consists of a total of around 14 billion connections. The main focus is on application areas that are hard to provide for by using classical mobile network-based connections – areas such as low-priced consumer electronics goods.


A pet tracker, for example, could be manufactured to cost 40 US dollars, including connectivity and service. Applications requiring higher security standards and greater bandwidths should continue to rely on traditional M2M connections. They include, for instance, the Smart Grid sector, security solutions, and Connected Car projects.


And there was light


Research by Prof. Harald Haas at the University of Edinburgh is much more visionary than LPWA networks. It involves using standard LEDs for data transfer. Prof. Haas has coined the term Li-Fi for a new optical data transmission process of which the latest demonstration model reaches transmission speeds of more than 130 Mbits per second.



The basic idea behind the process is to change the light intensity of LEDs very fast. These changes go unnoticed by the human eye, but a receiver with a light sensor registers them and can process the data received.


The idea of using light as the carrier of a modern communication system dates back to the nineteenth century. An early precursor was the photophone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter in 1880. It relayed speech over a distance of 200 meters via bundled light. For Bell the photophone was “the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone.”


Part of our digital infrastructure


Photonic networks are far from unusual in today’s information society. Fiber-optic networks use optical conductors. Yet comprehensive data transmission by LED would nonetheless be revolutionary because LEDs are so omnipresent in their function as luminaires.


For the Internet of Things, data transfer by LED opens up a number of potential uses. In certain rooms lamps could provide video downloads. A further advantage is that LED data does not cause electromagnetic interference, so the process is suitable for data interchange in aviation or in hazardous environments such as petrochemical plants.

Tags: M2M , Internet of Things , low power wide area networks , visual light communications , LPWA , VLC , LiFi , LED

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