Internet at the Speed of Light. Seriously, Light.

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Internet at the Speed of Light. Seriously, Light.

“Hey — I’m talking to you.” I look up as a mild-mannered-looking man, who clutches a MacBook Air and a latte, hovers angrily over an older, careworn fellow sipping his coffee while watching movies on an old HP.

“Are you watching 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 of them are like me, remote workers who can do their jobs from anywhere. But there are also retirees, who come for a cup of coffee, some company and long games of Scrabble.

Near the entrance, housewives and stay-at-home moms trade gossip, along with iPhone pictures of their kids, while at the back, next to the bathrooms, a flock of unemployed twenty-somethings huddle over fantasy card games.

A couple of eccentrics stop in to work on a mixture of odd projects, too — one man claimed to be translating the Bible back into Aramaic, another said he was working on a 10-part steampunk epic.

Every day, these interesting personalities come together at the cafe, engaging in their different activities, but all doing one thing the same: going online, either through smartphones, tablets or laptops, which means the Internet gets bogged down. Inevitably, that leads to dropped connections — sometimes for a few minutes, but more often, a lot longer — which, then, turns to irritation, before boiling to outrage, disrupting the usual harmony of the place.

That’s a shame, really. Normally, everyone is polite. The atmosphere is nice, full of bright colors, with a lot of sunshine and a warm scent of espresso in the air. But when there isn’t enough Internet to go around, well… it seems that’s when things get nasty.

The solution may come from light. According to the New York Times, researchers are using light-emitting diode lights, or LEDs, to send signals in a method called “Li-Fi.” Since the bandwidth for visible light is 10,000 times larger than the spectrum for radio frequencies, more people would be able to use it simultaneously.

It turns out an LED is not just a light source; it’s a sophisticated electronic device. By altering the brightness level, an LED can oscillate at phenomenal speeds — millions of times per second. We can’t see it, but it’s this ability that allows it to transmit data at incredible speeds.

“When there is a ‘one’, we turn on the lightbulb; when there is a ‘zero’, we turn it off,” Harald Haas, a professor at University of Edinburgh and one of the scientists of the faster Li-Fi speeds, told CNN. “A receiver on the other end would recognize these changes in intensity and decode the binary stream.”

It sounds revolutionary, but the basic idea isn’t new. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell, who famously invented the telephone, had also created the photophone, a device that could beam signals using sunlight. By speaking into the bulky instrument, and aiming it at a mirror, the vibration of the voice would cause similar reverberations to the surface of the glass. So when sunlight was directed at the mirror, those vibrations would be projected to a receiver, which would then convert the lightwaves back to sound.

On April 1, 1880, Bell’s assistant, standing atop the roof of a school, sent 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 a 100 years later. So why aren’t we using photophones then? It had one big problem: it didn’t work on cloudy days.

Today, though, researchers are perfecting Bell’s idea in the form of Li-Fi. According to BBC News, U.K. scientists recently hit speeds of more than 10-gigabits per second, or about 10 times faster than Google Fiber, by using tiny, micro-LED bulbs, developed by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, to beam parallel streams of light that essentially multiplied the speed of transmission.

But the real allure of Li-Fi is its use with standard LED fixtures found in homes and buildings around the world. That means the system can be installed at fairly low cost, without having to rewire buildings — just swap out a regular bulb for a Li-Fi one.

“The idea is that of this double function,” Haas 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.”

Not only is it an energy-efficient alternative to Wi-Fi, it’s also more stable and consistent over the entire footprint. If an LED can reach you, you’ll get a strong signal. “If you have enough illumination, sufficient for reading, then you can guarantee enough signal power for wireless communication,” he told Wired.

But there is one big drawback: light can’t travel through walls. Haas, though, sees Li-Fi as a compliment to Wi-Fi, and not a replacement. And the technology is trickling into parts of the real-world. According to the Financial Times, U.K.-based PureVLC, which Haas started to market Li-Fi, shipped its first batch of devices 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 can broadcast 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: she needs to be within three meters of the bulbs. But with Chinese government funding, her project is attracting plenty of attention from all corners of the world.

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.

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.

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Exploring the human and social side of the digital revolution, and how everyday people use technology in new and extraordinary ways.
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