When Your Wi-Fi Slows to a Crawl, It’s Time to Browse the Web at the Speed of Light.
Do you have a need for speed?
BY KAT ASCHARYA | NOVEMBER 07, 2013
“I’m talking to you.”
I look up as a mild-mannered-looking man, clutching a MacBook Air and a latte, hovers angrily over an older, careworn fellow who’s sipping coffee and watching movies on an old HP.
“Are you watching the YouTube?” he asks. “Get off the Internet!”
“Here we go again,” I think. “The daily afternoon brawl for Wi-Fi.”
I work from a cafe that’s full of people at all hours of the day. A few are like me, remote workers who can do their jobs from anywhere. Then, there are retirees, who come for a cup of coffee, some company and long games of Scrabble. Housewives and stay-at-home moms with strollers trade gossip and pictures of kids on iPhones.
There’s even a flock of unemployed twenty-somethings that play fantasy card games, and a couple of eccentrics stop in to work on a mixture of odd projects — one man claimed to be translating the Bible back into Aramaic, another said he was working on a 10-part steampunk epic.
Every day, around this time, these personalities come together at the cafe, and that means they bog down the network — which inevitably leads to dropped connections, sometimes for a few minutes, but more often, a lot longer. That’s when irritations turn to outrage, disrupting the usual harmony of the place.
That’s a shame, really. The atmosphere is nice, full of bright colors, sunshine and the warm scent of espresso. Normally, everyone is polite, but when there isn’t enough Internet to go around, well… that’s when things get nasty.
Internet at the Speed of Light
According to the New York Times, researchers around the world are tackling the problem using visible light instead of radio waves, in a method called “Li-Fi.” Since the bandwidth for light is 10,000 times larger than the spectrum for radio frequencies, more people can use it simultaneously without congestion.
The idea isn’t new. Alexander Graham Bell, who famously invented the telephone, had also created the photophone, a device that could beam signals over sunlight. By speaking into the bulky instrument, and aiming the voice at a mirror, the vibration of the voice would cause similar reverberations to the surface. When light was then directed at the mirror, those vibrations could be projected to a receiver, which would then convert the lightwaves back to sound.
On April 1, 1880, Bell’s assistant, standing on a rooftop of a school, used the photophone to transmit the world’s first wireless message into the window of the laboratory about 700 feet away. That technology would help form the foundation of digital and wireless transmission nearly 100 years later. But it had one big problem: it didn’t work on cloudy days.
But researchers today are perfecting Bell’s idea in the form of Li-Fi. Instead of relying on sunlight, wireless devices use light-emitting diode lights, or LEDs, to send signals. By altering the brightness levels, LEDs can oscillate at speeds undetectable to the human eye, and transmit data in the form of binary code to a photosensitive receiver, which, like Wi-Fi routers, pass the signal to nearby gadgets.
According to BBC News, U.K. scientists recently hit speeds of more than 10-gigabits per second with li-fi, or about 10 times faster than Google Fiber. Researchers used tiny micro-LED bulbs, developed by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, to beam parallel streams of light, which multiplies the speed of transmission.
Li-Fi is so attractive because it can use standard LED fixtures found in most homes and buildings around the world. The system can be installed at fairly low cost, without having to rewire buildings — just swap out a regular bulb for an Li-Fi one.
Not only is it an energy-efficient alternative to Wi-Fi, it’s also more stable and consistent over the entire footprint. If you can see the LED, you’ll get a strong signal.
The idea is that of this double function,” Harald Haas, a professor at University of Edinburgh and one of the scientists of the faster Li-Fi speeds, told The Verge. “A lightbulb is not just a light spending unit. It’s now a wireless transceiver, light-producing unit, communications device, or a Li-Fi access point.”
But there is one big drawback: lights can’t travel through walls. “If you have enough illumination, sufficient for reading, then you can guarantee enough signal power for wireless communication,” Haas told Wired.
Still, the technology is trickling into the real-world. According to the Financial Times, U.K.-based PureVLC, which Haas started to market Li-Fi, shipped its first batch to a healthcare provider in the U.S. It also installed a system at the Business Academy Bexley in London to stream a video address by the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson.
Providers are working with niche companies to iron out the technology, the Financial Times reported. But the true windfall for them will be when the capacity crunch hits. “In two or three years,” Haas said. “That is really where it will become imperative.”
But that’s not stopping hobbyists from building their own do-it-yourself networks. For example, Chi Nan, a scientist at Fudan University, constructed her own Li-Fi system using parts she bought on Chinese e-commerce site Taobao. According to Network World, her homemade system broadcasts data at 150-megabytes per second. With stronger bulbs, she said it could surpass 3.5-gigabytes per second.
Her system isn’t exactly portable, though, and she needs to be within three meters of the bulbs to connect. But with Chinese government funding, her project is attracting plenty of attention from all corners of the world.
It’s a First-World Problem
The daily conflicts at the cafe seems like part of the color here, one of those odd, little quirks that turn a space into a place full of character, foibles and eccentricity. But the idea of a Wi-Fi crunch isn’t exclusive to hip, Mom-and-Pop coffee houses.
Every evening, arguments flare up at home, too. My mom streams Thai soap operas for hours, and it slows down our network to the point where my dad can’t read his favorite websites. That same story plays out across the country, as families find themselves dropped from their networks once everyone settles in for the evening, either playing Minecraft on the Xbox, doing research on the iPad or watching shows on Netflix.
Even at Mobile World Congress, a conference for wireless products, the Internet was unusable for hours at a time due to maxed-out airwaves, Information Week reported. And according to Cisco director Jared Headley, who deployed the network, one single day of data traffic exceeded bandwidth levels for the entire event just two years earlier.
If the wireless industry can’t deal with the glut, how can normal, everyday people and coffee shops cope with it? After all, as we collect more gadgets, and use data-heavier services like video streaming and cloud storage, a network crunch looms on the horizon for all of us.
Mobile networks are expected to get the brunt of the blow. According to Cisco, global mobile traffic is set to grow to 11-exabytes — or 11 billion-gigabytes — a month by 2017, a 13-fold increase from 2012. In fact, by the end of the year, the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population.
Initially, wireless providers tackled the crunch by building faster networks, leading to the confusing alphabet-soup of terms: 3G, 4G and even 5G. But the pace of the upgrades isn’t keeping up with skyrocketing demand for bandwidth. As a result, the industry is looking to unload some traffic to the forgotten stepchild of a bygone era: Wi-Fi.
When the FCC released a band of airwaves for unlicensed use in 1985, NCR and AT&T created the first Wi-Fi products — cashier systems, which ran on a precursor to the 802.11 standard. Today, more devices, at more places, are Wi-Fi-capable than ever, so it seems odd that there isn’t enough bandwidth to go around.
But as the spat at the cafe shows, it’s easy for networks to be overloaded. Every afternoon, as the coffee shop fills up with patrons, the Wi-Fi gets spottier and spottier until it begins to periodically kick people off. Even robust networks at public places like airports and libraries have issues with congestion.
The Federal Communications Commission hopes to fix the bigger issue by devoting more airwaves for Wi-Fi. Earlier this year, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski hinted that he would share or reassign portions of the 5-gigahertz band to create a larger number of Wi-Fi channels. According to Forbes, he plans to increase spectrum by 35 percent, and add an extra 195-megahertz to existing airwaves. The move would be the largest, single expansion of unlicensed spectrum since 2003, and should, theoretically, bring us faster, more reliable Wi-Fi.
But judging from the brawls at the cafe, we won’t feel the effects for some time. Expanding Wi-Fi channels would reduce congestion, but equipment makers, which build the routers and access points we connect to, must design new products to take advantage of the faster, more plentiful networks. Then, of course, device makers of all stripes must roll out upgraded smartphones, tablets and laptops to follow suit. That whole process will take several years.
Bigger But Slower
While Li-Fi uses a faster, local approach, others are exploring a slower, but wider-reaching, method to ease congestion. Robotics engineer Taylor Alexander, for example, created a so-called “second network” alternative to Wi-Fi. Dubbed “Flutter,” the idea is simple. By linking each transmitter together to form a “mesh network,” Flutter covers a huge area — about 3,200 feet, or 100 times bigger than Wi-Fi — to network entire cities together.
Its speeds, however, are slower than Wi-Fi, so it isn’t ideal for typical consumer use. Instead, Flutter is a prototype for the growing “Internet of things” trend, where everyday objects, like appliances and accessories, are wired to “talk” to one another by sharing small amounts of data over short distances.
“We have Wi-Fi in our homes, but it’s not a good network for our things,” Taylor told Quartz. Currently, these simpler devices piggyback on Wi-Fi, so a second network for low-bandwidth products would free up strained Wi-Fi networks to — say, stream YouTube in coffee shops.
While the project is in the beginning stages, the idea has the potential to lay the groundwork to connect everything. For now, though, the concepts will need time to gain momentum.
Meanwhile, the cafe found a simple solution to ease congestion. Now, patrons have to ask the barista for the password of the day, making everyone jump through one extra hoop before logging on. Managers also ask customers not to loiter past the two-hour mark, though buying a steady supply of pastries and caffeine helps them look the other direction.
No one bickers about the Wi-Fi as much, but it still gets sluggish at times.
At some point, though, the capacity crunch will affect us in a larger, more global way. Enterprising companies and inventors will find new ways for us to connect by then. Still, it’s fun to imagine beams of light filling this coffee shop, providing our Internet, as well as for warmth and illumination.
This post is sponsored by the Enterprise Mobile Hub and BlackBerry.
Interesting, very interesting...