Late last year, we reported on an effort to solve the logistical problem of burying fiber for high-speed networks by using lasers to transmit data across long distances. Now a group of researchers from the University of Edinburgh think that lasers might be the answer to improving current Wi-Fi speeds. They’re thinking smaller but faster, as a localized wireless solution rather than a citywide network.
Wi-Fi? More Like “Why-Bother-Fi.”
Current Wi-Fi technology uses portions of the radio broadcast spectrum to transmit data and the current Wi-Fi 802.11ad standard has the theoretical potential to deliver 7 Gbps. In practice, it doesn’t, of course. A 7-gig network would be seven times as fast as our country’s fastest current fiber networks.
One technology already proven faster than Wi-Fi is Li-Fi. This technology uses rapidly-pulsing light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to transmit data and offers the potential for 15 Gbps. Theoretically, Li-Fi networks could use the same LED light bulbs that are starting to replace traditional halogen and compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in homes and automotive applications. While doing so wouldn’t be necessary, it’s a pretty cool use of technology, though it does make you wonder if the network would be working after you turn off the lights.
Harald Haas, a member of the Ultra-Parallel Visible Light Communications Project, is also Chair of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh. Researchers at that school have already been working on Li-Fi technology for some time, and in recent experiments, they replaced LED Li-Fi transmitters with laser diodes. Lasers are more efficient than LEDs, and in a paper published in the academic journal “Optics Express,” Haas and his team claimed the laser transmitters enabled wireless data transmission rates of 100 Gbps. Whether using lasers or sheep-based networks, the U.K. is on top of wireless broadband.
Implementation Won’t Be as Fast as Transmission
Don’t go scrapping your current Wi-Fi network just yet, though. Haas notes that there are a few obstacles to implementing this technology: the first is the fact that radio-based Wi-Fi is already in widespread use, with new networks constantly being created. Many network providers are going to be hesitant to change over to abandon current technology after spending the money to put it in place.
And money itself is a factor. LED lighting is more expensive than current halogen or CFL bulbs, but LED flashlights and even home lighting is already available at your nearest home improvement store. Not so for laser lighting. Haas points out that the headlights on the BMW I8 use this laser technology, but those headlights cost more than $10,000. However, LED headlights were unheard of once as well. Now, that cost and technology has trickled down to use on Subaru’s. It takes time, but the price of technology always falls.
It’s Great, but Not a Reality Yet
Here we are again, teasing you with another example of awesome future technology that you can’t have yet. Sorry about that, but we can at least offer to help you find a better, faster Internet plan than the one you currently have.
Photo Credit: Andrea Pacell/Flikr With apologies to Dr. Evil, I have one simple request: Internet with frickin’ lasers. Lasers are cool. The Internet is cool. Combining the two sounds like one of the best ideas since peanut butter and jelly. But, until recently, the problem was that practical industrial lasers have been more sci-fi than not.
Now, though, the technology is real. The military is already using a laser communication system, and like all military projects, it has an appropriate acronym: the Enhanced Air Ground Lasercom System (EAGLS). Aoptix, the company that designed EAGLS, claims its laser Internet technology has the potential for 2-4 Gbps speeds, double to quadruple the current fastest speeds available in this country.
Technically, Aoptix wants to deliver Internet via laser and radio, as the two technologies have to work literally side-by-side. Each technology is susceptible to different forms of weather interference so together they provide redundancy. Raindrops can affect radio, but not lasers, and fog can affect lasers, but not radio. The company says their dual transmitters can reliably send data up to 10 kilometers between relay towers already built and in place. And in case you’re wondering, the laser operates on a non-visible portion of the light spectrum, so you won’t have to put up with looking into the Eye of Sauron to get a fast connection. Here’s how the laser portion of the transmission works:
Sure It’s Cool, But Why This Particular Wireless Tech?
Like other companies with fiber network alternatives, Aoptix sees infrastructure cost savings as the primary benefit of wireless networks over fiber. There aren’t miles and miles of trenches to dig or fiber to lay. EAGLS has proven the technology works, and the fact that it can work with existing infrastructure means that implementing the laser/radio broadband network should be very inexpensive. Three U.S. carriers are currently in talks with Aoptix, and the system is already in use with Car-Sa, an Internet provider in Mexico. Aoptix has even installed a laser/radio link between NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange, where an even slightly faster connection can result in increased profits for stock market traders.
Unlike other fiber alternatives that require some infrastructure cost, the fact that Aoptix uses existing towers to relay their signals means that this could be a great way to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas that already have radio and cell towers. Installation should require little more than putting transmitter relays on those towers.
It’s Okay to Geek Out a Bit
With these real-world trials already under way, it shouldn’t take long to determine whether lasers are the answer to the wireless broadband question. But take a step back, and forget the science. Forget the infrastructure. We live in a world where nothing amazes us anymore, and there’s a company installing lasers that will let us interact and share content faster than ever. Sure, it’s always smart to be a bit skeptical over promises of better mousetraps, sometimes it’s hard not to get excited. Especially when lasers are involved.
Commercial Internet by laser isn’t available quite yet, but if you can’t wait until it is, enter your zip code below to see high-speed plans that are available in your area.
Image by Andrew Adams/Flickr