Residents of Graemsay in the Orkney Islands are being connected to fit-for-purpose wireless broadband services for the first time, thanks to the 5G RuralFirst testbed, which has deployed so-called Li-Fi technology on the island to bypass its old and decrepit copper network.
Graemsay, which had a population of just under 30 as of the 2011 census, is located towards the southwest of the Orkney Island group, in between the Mainland and the island of Hoy, and is surrounded by hazardous tidal races, making access challenging.
Up to now, residents had been able to connect to broadband services, but only over the same congestion-prone copper landline network, with speeds struggling to hit 2Mbps.
By combining Li-Fi technology – which uses light itself to provide high-speed, secure and energy-efficient data transmission from fixed to wireless terminals, the 5G RuralFirst team said it was now consistently delivering four times higher data speeds.
One of the island’s two 19th century lighthouses, has been kitted out as a central communications hub to deliver outdoor Li-Fi over the last mile to the island’s homes using domestic solar panels as receivers and infrared lasers as transmitters.
Meanwhile, in the homes themselves, indoor Li-Fi collects light from LED bulbs using a USB dongle to create a wireless network.
Harald Haas, director of the Li-FI Research and Development Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and CSO of spin-out company pureLiFi, said: “Graemsay is in a complex position in terms of upgrading connectivity in the area, with just a copper landline to connect its residents and businesses. Li-Fi allows the area to utilise the light spectrum in two important domains: affordable last mile connectivity, and high-speed indoor wireless networking.
“Both are essential to overcome the rural divide which increasingly disadvantages rural communities. Graemsay is the first location which harnesses ordinary solar panels as outdoor broadband detectors and ordinary LED lamps in homes as wireless access points and can now take advantage of advanced connectivity like never before,” said Haas.
“Li-Fi is a particularly sustainable solution to provide wireless connectivity and can be managed by residents themselves and combined with existing networks,” said Dez O’Connor, 5G RuralFirst project chief technology officer and Cisco business development manager for global service providers.
“As well as demonstrating the potential of advanced 5G technology to bridge the digital divide and better connect rural areas, 5G RuralFirst is trialling different technologies such as Li-Fi to solve the challenges posed by remote environments.”
Benefits over conventional Wi-Fi
Li-Fi advocates like Haas – who actually developed and coined the term Li-Fi in 2011– hold that the technology has a number of benefits over conventional Wi-Fi connectivity.
Importantly, by using the visible light spectrum as opposed to radio waves to transmit data, Li-Fi may eventually alleviate concerns over spectrum availability because the visible light spectrum is much larger than the radio spectrum, and is more suitable for use in environments where using the radio spectrum may be problematic, such as on-board aircraft, hospitals or dangerous industrial environments.
Additionally, because light clearly cannot penetrate walls, Li-Fi is potentially more secure than Wi-Fi, although the limitations of visible light also present new problems in terms of network strength, range and hand-off capabilities. It also requires that the lights be switched on.
The 5G RuralFirst testbed is one of several projects being run under the government’s 5G Testbeds and Trials programme. A collaboration between Cisco, the University of Strathclyde and a number of other technical and academic partners, the RuralFirst consortium was awarded £4.3m in 2018 to explore 5G applications in rural communities and agriculture.
One of the scheme’s more high-profile projects has been a trial of technology enabling people to track connected cows around a Somerset farm.
Other schemes running under the 5G Testbeds and Trials banner include AutoAir, which is exploring 5G for connected and autonomous vehicles with the help of operator O2; Sensor City’s Liverpool 5G Testbed, which is working on 5G for the NHS and social care sector; and the West of England Combined Authority’s (WECA’s) 5G Smart Tourism testbed, which is exploring the use of 5G in Bath and Bristol for enabling inclusive, connected tourism.