Fraunhofer tests an LED lamp that will light up your PC at 3 Gbps

When you think about broadband connections, you usually picture radio airwaves or wires, not ambient light. But the emerging field of LED broadband (sometimes dubbed Li-Fi) aims to turn your light bulbs into data transmitters by subtly manipulating the rate they flicker. One of the organizations researching such optical communications technology, Germany’s Fraunhofer, has hit a new milestone: a lighting system that could deliver up to 3 Gbps.

Fraunhofer’s Heinrich Hertz (yes, that Hertz) Institute said it has developed components in the lab that will allow off-the-shelf LED lights to transmit data at a rate of 1 Gbps on a single frequency. Since most commercial LEDs support three frequencies (or colors) of visible light, that gives the system a total capacity of 3 Gbps.

The institute has achieved this, in part, by expanding the size of each frequency transmission band from 30 MHz to 180 MHz. Basically, Fraunhofer has developed a bigger light pipe into which it can cram more data.

Fraunhofer HHI Visible light communication LED broadband

The transmission is one-way of course — unless your PC or smartphone is equipped with its own LED — but the technology could be used as a high-powered supplemental downlink, say, for streaming video. And being that they’re light, the beams are also visible and can be highly focused. Wi-Fi may permeate your home, but once you walk out from under the warm glow of your lamp, your LED connection disappears. Fraunhofer said that could be useful in places such as hospitals where there is strict control over which devices and can access the network and where they can access it.

Fraunhofer’s claims that its technology will work with off-the-shelf LEDs could have significant consequences. As my colleague Ucilia Wang points out in recent GigaOM Research report (subscription required), LED lighting prices are falling but haven’t reached the price point necessary to spur mass consumer adoption. LED manufacturers are trying to make their lighting systems smarter to boost their value. Connecting our light bulbs to the internet of things is one way to make them more valuable. Another way is to make a ceiling lamp that could function as high-speed broadband link as well as pleasant illumination source.

Fraunhofer also points out that the technology could be used in other places beyond the indoors. For instance, the LED headlights in a car could be used to beam information to vehicles ahead about velocity, trajectory or even destination, allowing them to coordinate their driving patterns on the road.