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Throwing light on Wi-Fi with LEDs, Google’s Project Fi

Google has said it will charge $20 per month to provide a basic plan with unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, Wi-Fi tethering to use the phone as a hotspot, and access cellular coverage in over 120 countries. Photo: AFPPremium
Google has said it will charge $20 per month to provide a basic plan with unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, Wi-Fi tethering to use the phone as a hotspot, and access cellular coverage in over 120 countries. Photo: AFP

Recent advances in LED technology have made it possible to modulate the LED light more rapidly, opening the possibility of using light for wireless transmission in a 'free space' optical communication system

Mumbai: Most of us are unlikely to ever be satisfied with our Internet speeds or bandwidth, especially given our appetite for consuming data—be it making calls on Skype or WhatsApp, watching or downloading music, videos and even films.

Ideally, this shouldn’t be a problem since our country has about 97 million broadband users of a total of about 300 million Internet users, according to latest figures from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) website.

However, in a developing country like India, the problem is that broadband is defined as equal to, or greater than, 512 kbps download speeds at a time when the US Federal Communications Commission has updated its broadband benchmark speeds to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

Telecom services providers, which have acquired more spectrum in the auctions that got over in March, will hopefully increase their third generation (3G) and fourth generation (4G) networks, and thus provide us with higher speeds, while the telecom regulator upgrades our definition of broadband.

Regardless, not everyone can afford 3G and 4G tariff plans and many users still make do with lower 2G and 2.5G speeds. Besides, even unlimited data plans have a fair usage policy, whereby the speeds almost halve after users exceed the pre-defined cap—typically about 1 GB to 3 GB depending on the plan that one has subscribed to—making online activities a drain on one’s energy.

It’s in this context that initiatives to tackle the issue of bandwidth by exploiting Wi-Fi networks is worth taking note of.

Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU), for instance, have invented a technology that can increase the bandwidth of Wi-Fi systems by 10 times, using light emitting diode (LED) lights to transmit information. The technology, the researchers said in a statement on 20 April, can be integrated with existing Wi-Fi systems to reduce bandwidth problems in crowded locations such as airport terminals or coffee shops, and in homes where several people have multiple Wi-Fi devices.

Recent advances in LED technology have made it possible to modulate the LED light more rapidly, opening the possibility of using light for wireless transmission in a “free space" optical communication system.

According to Thinh Nguyen, an OSU associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, the LED-based Wi-Fi prototype called WiFO will not only improve the experience for users, but is also uses “inexpensive components". Nguyen worked with Alan Wang, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, to build the first prototype.

WiFO uses LEDs that are beyond the visual spectrum for humans and creates an invisible cone of light about one meter square in which the data can be received. To address the issue of a small area of usability, the researchers created a hybrid system that can switch between several LED transmitters installed on a ceiling, and the existing Wi-Fi system.

The system can potentially send data at up to 100 megabits per second. “Although some current Wi-Fi systems have similar bandwidth, it has to be divided by the number of devices, so each user might be receiving just 5 to 10 megabits per second, whereas the hybrid system could deliver 50-100 megabits to each user," the researchers said in the statement.

The researchers believe their prototype is particularly useful at home where telephones, tablets, computers, gaming systems, and televisions may all be connected to the Internet, and increased bandwidth would eliminate problems like video streaming that stalls and buffers. The receivers are small photodiodes that cost less than a dollar each and could be connected through a USB port for current systems, or incorporated into the next generation of laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

A provisional patent has been secured on the technology, and a paper was published at the 17th ACM ‘International Conference on Modeling, Analysis and Simulation of Wireless and Mobile Systems’.

That said, OSU will have to find a company to commercialise the project.

Google Inc, meanwhile, has introduced a solution for users in the US to begin with with its Project Fi. US-based users have to request Google to invite them for the same, and the service currently is only available on the Nexus 6 smartphone. Google will put the users it chooses on the “best available network between Wi-Fi and two 4G LTE networks". This means those who get invited by Google, get access to more cell towers and 4G LTE (long term evolution) in more places.

As of now, the service is only available in the US but Google has partnered with two telecom services providers--Sprint and T-Mobile--to use their network for the project.

As an aside, even in a country like India, telecom services providers do allow smartphone users to switch between Wi-Fi and data networks. Of course, users have to pay for the data charges when they move out of an open Wi-Fi hotspot, but continuity of calls (users have the option of disabling that switch button to avoid paying extra charges)and other online activity is maintained.

Google said it will charge $20 per month to provide a basic plan with unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, Wi-Fi tethering to use the phone as a hotspot, and access cellular coverage in over 120 countries. Google does not charge for the data when connected to an open or home Wi-Fi. This model, say experts, may soon pose a challenge to mobile billing practices of telecom services providers.

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