Martyn Wingrove discusses the next-generation light technology that offers better availability, capacity, reliability and security than wifi
Wifi's radio communications signal does not transmit well through steel decks and bulkheads. And while engineers have come up with creative workarounds, overall, improvements have been limited and costs are considerably higher than expected.
Ironically, wireless fidelity (wifi) was expected to be a wonder technology that would revolutionise internet access for passengers and seafarers acrosss the maritime industry, but the metal frameworks that make up the bulk of the commercial fleet proved to be a barrier to wifi radio frequencies' propagation.
To date, reliable wifi access at sea remains an almost oxymoronic phrase, and shipowner IT experts have complained to me regularly over the years about the problems they have faced.
On passenger ships, standard wifi setups offer internet access that is often only reliable in common areas, leaving cruise and ferry passengers with limited connectivity.
To combat the problem, many owners have gone through the considerable expense and cumbersome process of wiring in individual wifi routers in cabins to ensure passengers or crew have access to internet services. But even then, there have been problems.
When modems are located close together they interfere with each other, counter-intuitively acting to reduce the bandwidth available to users. However, on a vessel there would be managed access points that talk to a central management device and will co-ordinate frequencies and power.
Within the non-passenger fleets, wifi performance challenges have begun to frustrate attempts at improved operational efficiency as ships are increasingly fitted with wireless sensors for internet of things (IoT) technology and remote condition monitoring.
One engineering workaround for IoT has been to add cabling or use existing telephone cabling on board ships, but, again, these steps have seen limited performance benefits and come with significant costs.
However, there is a technology on the horizon that could bring reliable internet at sea for both IoT and human users. Step forward light fidelity (LiFi). LiFi enables wireless communication between devices using visible and infrared light to transmit data.
The technology – developed by the University of Edinburgh – converts data to light-emitting diode (LED) transmissions, using existing light sources as secure points for transmitting signals. In essence, it would use a ship’s light sources to provide widespread access to internet connectivity and data would then be transmitted through a ship's existing lighting power network. Data flows from the LED, just like it would from a wifi router, to connected devices within range.
As such, it avoids the interference issues and expense of deploying multiple modems.
What are the other benefits?
LiFi is 100 times faster than currently achievable speeds of wifi, resulting in faster communications and better service quality.
LiFi is much more efficient in terms of cost and power consumption as it uses existing light infrastructure and LED bulbs. It is more secure from unauthorised access than wifi, which can be hacked from greater distances than LiFi.
But in order to bring this technology closer to market readiness, we need a company that will take the plunge and develop it for maritime and a class society and naval architect willing to provide technical support. Then, it is on to finding a shipowner willing to provide a candidate for a pilot project.