IN the future, the world’s 20 billion light sources – including street lights, car headlights and household lighting – will provide virtually unlimited internet connectivity, wiping out the global bandwidth shortage overnight.

This is the vision of pureLiFi, the University of Edinburgh spin-out that raised $18m (£14m) last year to take its transformational technology mainstream.

“We are just using regular light – LED light bulbs,” explained pureLiFi non-executive director Glenn Collinson. “That means wherever you have light, you can receive an internet connection. You might be indoors on your smartphone trying to connect to the internet. But the WiFi signal is very congested. So instead, you connect to the internet using LiFi, through the light signal from the lightbulb in your ceiling.”

LiFi reaches extremely fast speeds by harnessing a very high, undetectable to the human eye, flicker rate of light emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs – one billion on-off cycles per second versus the 100 cycles per second of a standard TV or computer monitor. This can be used to transmit 1000 times more data than the entire radio wave spectrum which is used, today, to deliver wireless data including WiFi & 5G.

READ MORE: Scottish ‘LiFi’ technology pioneer targets mass market rollout

“Imagine a virtual conference with hundreds or thousands of people trying to connect to the internet” Mr Collinson explained. “That’s a problem, because there’s not enough capacity in a confined area like that using existing technology like WiFi or 5G. LiFi solves that capacity bottleneck. It makes wireless communication much more convenient and has much more capacity than the radio frequency spectrum.”

In 1998, Mr Collinson co-founded Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR), which pioneered Bluetooth technology and was one of the UK’s first ‘unicorns’ – $1 billion tech start ups. San Diego-based semiconductor giant Qualcomm acquired CSR for $2.5 billion in 2014.

“Back then, in the world before smartphones, you had computers and phones for making phone calls, but they didn’t speak to each other. Bluetooth was invented to solve that problem and went into many other applications as well. Today it’s used in headphones and anywhere you listen to music without wires. It’s also used in cars for making hands-free calls. There are more than 10 billion Bluetooth chips being used as we speak.”

Having changed the world with one technology, Mr Collinson sees even more transformational potential in LiFi.

“It’s solving the even more fundamental problem of this capacity crunch – as more and more people use the internet wirelessly, there is less and less space in the radio spectrum to accommodate everyone.”

It seems apt – and exciting – that one of the fathers of Bluetooth is now working alongside the ‘father of LiFi’ – Harald Haas, a German Professor of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh who coined the term LiFi.

“He coined the term back in 2011 and everyone else has followed his lead,” Mr Collinson said. “Today, he leads our advanced research projects, so that’s a great asset to have the father of the technology working with you day-to-day.”

PureLiFi co-founder and chief technology officer Mostafa Afgani is also a pivotal member of the team, Mr Collinson added.

Previous funding rounds were about developing prototypes, but the latest investment will allow pureLiFi, which was founded in 2012, to take its technology into mainstream high volume production in 2021. More than 200 businesses are working on projects in more than 20 countries to integrate pureLiFi’s technology into their own devices and systems.

“We are working with operators like telecoms company Liberty Global and O2 Telefonica,” Mr Collinson said. “We are working with infrastructure providers like Cisco. And we are also working with device manufacturers like Getac, who specialise in manufacturing ‘rugged’ tablet and PC computers for tough working environments in the military, manufacturing and automotive industries.”

The key innovation for the company has been shrinking down its technology into a small chip so it can be integrated into everything.

“When LiFi started, it was as big as a filing cabinet,” Mr Collinson explained. “Even last year, you still needed a dongle – a little device that you plug into a computer or phone. Now we have the chip, which can be integrated inside devices. So there’s no compromise. When someone buys a product, it already has LiFi built in. That’s the key to driving very wide adoption.”

Prototype products already developed by pureLiFi and its partners include a mobile phone and laptop embedded with a LiFi optical chip to deliver gigabit download speeds – more than 1,000 megabits per second – against current UK average download speeds of less than 50 megabits per second.

Lighting manufacturers Zumtobel and Wipro have developed a range of LiFi enabled light fittings. O2 Telefonica, the mobile telecoms provider, trialled LiFi in its Slough headquarters to provide hi-speed internet access that could be adjusted up or down by dimming or brightening the lights. In Scotland, a pilot at Kyle Academy secondary school in Ayr saw pupils access high speed internet on their laptops through the classroom light fittings.

A native of Saltburn-by-the-Sea in Cleveland, UK, Mr Collison said he has always been ‘techie-minded’ and holds a BSc in Physics and an MSc in Electronics from Durham University . After university, he was a practicing engineer, designing silicon chips at US technology company Texas Instruments and telecoms company Motorola, before co-founding CSR. He has been working as an advisor at pureLiFi since 2016.

“It’s exciting to be at the forefront of this technology, to be pushing the envelope and to know at the moment that no-one else can do what pureLiFi can do,” Mr Collison said. “It’s also great with our new investment that we can make the most of these opportunities.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

For business, it’s Taiwan, simply because it is the quickest way to find out how competitive your idea/product/company really is. For pleasure, it has to be France. It’s beautiful, challenging, maddening and irresistible.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

Opening the batting for Yorkshire with cricketer Sir Geoffrey Boycott. What was your biggest break in business? Joining technology consultancy Cambridge Consultants. Established in 1960, it was a principal founder of “the Cambridge phenomenon” – Europe’s leading high-tech cluster. Since then, the business has evolved into a global team engaged in solving the world’s toughest technology challenges. I was 33 when I joined and “should” have been climbing the corporate ladder: it really does call come down to the team.

What was your worst moment in business?

Having to make team members redundant during a downturn.

Who do you most admire and why?

Eric “Winkle” Brown, the Royal Navy officer and test pilot who flew 487 types of aircraft, more than anyone else in history. He was also the most-decorated pilot in Royal Navy history.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? I’m reading Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann And The Greatest Unsolved Problem In Mathematics by John Derbyshire. It’s a historical book on mathematics detailing the history of the Riemann hypothesis, which many consider to be the most important unsolved problem in pure mathematics. I am listening to The Blue Album – the 2002 rock album by Dutch composer and multiinstrumentalist Valensia (never “before your time”).