Martyn Wingrove's recent comment on the potential uses of light fidelity (LiFi) in maritime got the attention of Satmarin general manager Michael De Coninck, who says owners can squeeze more life out of wifi before they jump to light speed
When I first read about LiFi (wifi where light is used instead of radio waves), I started imagining a whole new and bright future equipped with potentially hundreds of GHz of available frequency and Terabits flowing to and from my devices. The world would definitely be a much better place, with internet a thousand times faster than on my current wireless network.
While that should be enough for even the most data-hungry netizen, on top of its speed, the technology uses less power, does not emit radiowave radiation, nor suffer from interference, and LiFi uses the same LED lights that light up ships and offices. "Let there be LiFi!", I said to myself.
Unfortunately, the technology is not readily available yet, and while I am often happy to to be an early adopter of promising tech, there are a few unanswered questions around LiFi that might make me hang on to my old radiowaves-based wifi just a little while longer than I had initially thought.
A first practical concern is that LiFi will most likely not work when my smartphone is in my pocket.
Also, what will LiFi cost? Will its receivers become small enough to be integrated into a smartphone, and will it have the range to reach the bow of a ship?
Currently, light can be used as a data communication medium, as long as it is running through a very thin fibre-optic cable. It might not yet give operators the freedom and Terabit speed that LiFi promises, but, speeds of 40 Gbps can already be achieved through Ethernet off the shelf and more is on the way soon.
All this high-speed availability might leave shipping companies wondering why current wireless connections are so excruciatingly slow and what can be done to improve them.
The first thing these companies need to consider is their unique operating environment. A cruise ship will have many more access points on board than a coaster. And all these access points should be managed properly to further the reach of wireless.
Installed standalone access points require manual configuring for optimal transmission power, frequency and other variable parameters. Unlike all the access points in an apartment building, which are individually owned and configured (resulting in dozens of devices set to maximum power and nobody able to get a decent connection), wifi infrastructure on board any vessel can be managed and monitored centrally without too much external wifi interference. Properly managed networks will also load-balance the number of users over the available access points, offering a better user experience.
For larger configurations requiring higher speeds – in cruise ships, for example – operators often install access points in each stateroom. When properly configured and managed, this setup can deliver larger bandwidth to achieve high-speed and low-transmit power, not interfere with neighbouring access points and allow for optimal frequency re-use.
Most professional wifi manufacturers offer managed solutions and will allow operators to achieve better performance than they might currently have. So, shipping companies might want to first consider asking for an expert opinion on how to optimise their current wifi setups before they jump for lightspeed.