How do you surf the web? Dubai pioneers Li-Fi

60 per cent of the global population lacks internet access, but for how long? Vision investigates the top four innovative solutions from Silicon Oasis' Light Fidelity to toaster satellites and Mark Zuckerberg's drones

The phrase ‘light bulb’ moment is particularly apt for a new invention set to enlighten Dubai.

The ambitious city will be the first to try high speed Li-Fi service by the end of 2016, as part of its aim to become one of the world's smartest and most connected cities within five years.

In a world first, the UAE-based technology company, Zero 1 has partnered with telecom operator du in order to test Light Fidelity in Silicon Oasis.

Li-Fi is still a laboratory technology and won’t be commercialised for two-three years, but in Dubai’s case the internet will flow through the city’s streetlights, a series of high-end design lamps valued at around $1,000 each.

Each light is to be converted into a wireless router by adding a microchip to provide internet access that is 100 times faster than wi-fi – a technology that appears left in the dark ages in comparison.

Lighting up the future

Harold Haas from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland invented Li-Fi in 2011. In a TED Talk in 2015 he demonstrated how billions of light bulbs could become wireless hotspots in the future. 

The idea has also been tested by Estonian firm Velmenni, designing a smart lighting system for its industrial office space, and in France by start-up Oledcomm, in Belgium and in India. 

Light Fidelity works by transmitting messages in binary code up to 1 Gbps (gigabit per second). It works on the frequencies generated by an LED bulb, thousands of flickers invisible to the human eye that emits a frequency readable by machines. Wi-Fi on the other hand, uses radio frequencies, a source in short supply.

In the lab, Li-Fi has proven fast enough to download the equivalent of 23 DVDs in one second by encoding information in light pulses, as it does on TV remote controls. Modern LEDs, it is thought, could transmit enough data for a stable broadband connection.

Although its obstacles to its success are that it must be directly in contact with light and can’t travel through walls, Li-Fi could be used on planes and in hospitals and it does not interfere with radio signals. 

Google Loon
Google's Project Loon uses balloons that float at 65,000 feet

Three innovative ways to transmit internet access

1. The Wi-Fi Balloon

Google's Project Loon has a charmingly low-tech solution for improving wi-fi access: balloons.

The balloons float at 65,000 feet – twice the altitude of a commercial aircraft – carrying baskets of solar-powered technology transmitting wireless internet below. 

A smaller balloon within inflates and deflates so the larger balloon can ascend and descend in the turbulent winds of the stratosphere.

2. Mark Zuckerberg's Internet.org Project

The founder of Facebook and a team of aerospace engineers are teaming up with the world's mobile phone providers to deliver surfing capabilities to poor and remote areas.

Zuckerberg's Connectivity Lab is exploring a variety of technologies, including high-altitude long-endurance planes, satellites and lasers, to make the internet affordable. The Aquila Unmanned Aircraft for example, boasts solar cells and super-efficient motors to enable let it stay airborne for months for internet delivery.

Drawing on Li-Fi-esque technology, invisible infrared laser beams that flicker on and off billions of times per second will send data at fiber-optic speeds using very little power. The lasers will be so accurate, they can hit a coin from 12 miles away.

Zuckerberg has also investigated the use of drones to deliver wireless internet service.

3. Syed Karim's Outernet

The entrepreneur is setting up a constellation of miniature satellites the size of toasters to beam information from the world wide web to anyone with a Wifi-enabled device for free.

The issue, says Syed Karim, is that 60% of the global population is denied internet access. And so, his motto is: 'If you could give every human on Earth a 1GB USB drive filled with content, what would you put on it?' 

Outernet send the actual files, rather than links that won’t work because there is no Internet connection. The company is, in essence, filling a 1GB USB drive each day and dropping the files from space for free. Content falls into either the 'breaking' category, transporting material such as news or disaster alerts, whereas other content falls into the 'evergreen' category of material, such as novels or artwork.