What is the Future of Networking?
Communications has evolved dramatically since the dawn of civilization, traversing enumerable cycles of optical, manual, and electromagnetic (or more commonly, RF) iterations. 5G wireless technology represents a watershed moment in communications bringing blazingly fast processing together with edge computing to usher in a new era of practical immersive engagement with digital systems. This is expected to unlock new use cases across multiple market sectors involving different user experiences that can be articulated to specific personas. Specific examples include but are not limited to wireless power charging of end-point devices and assets by harvesting native 5G signals, real time continuous presence identification of people and things (notwithstanding privacy concerns), and enablement of “space as a service” in terms of commercial real estate (CRE) hybrid workplace utilization. Simplistically, it is logical that 6G (and eventually 7G) technologies will burst onto scene to replace 5G, bringing even greater capabilities and features. Or are they fated to be an evolutionary dead end?
A competing technology to 5G is LiFi and it has many practical advantages over the former. LiFi is a play on WiFi, the latter a technology that we are very accustomed to for short range broadband networking, particularly in an in-building setting or in contained areas. Since LiFi technology uses optical frequencies, inherently it is faster (exclusive of electrical-to-optical conversion latencies) and capable of supporting greater bandwidths. In its current state, LiFi communications uses optical frequencies for data and information transmission, eliminating many of the challenges of both 5G and WiFi. Any light source that can be suitably modulated may serve as a transmission source, namely LEDs, which makes the technology very attractive for building owners who have a native installed base of LED lighting. A further benefit is that the optical transmission path can be tightly controlled in terms of its illumination footprint, making it fundamentally more secure than RF technologies like 5G and WiFi, which rely on multi-path propagation. In the long run, this technology may even be less costly relative to RF-based schemas given that it is simple to implement, with low-cost transmission sources (LEDs are now relatively inexpensive and powerful enough to be practical), and low-cost demodulation devices (typically photodiodes and/or phototransistors). Direct line of sight is not a hard requirement, as many will recognize via an experiment with one’s home TV remote control. The main limitation is the electro-optical interface. Fortuitously, significant research development (including that by NASA) is driving the creation of foundational all-optical components, eliminating the need for electro-optical interfaces. While this technology is still in its infancy, it ultimately may represent a disruptive shift away from RF-based technologies like 5G and WiFi should the economics pan out.
Building on the theme of (eventually) all-optical communications is that of quantum networking. This esoteric technology takes us into fuzzy world of quantum weirdness where “uncertainty” is an axiom not an exception (recalling Schrodinger’s famous ‘cat’ thought experiment). Technically, we cannot simultaneously know the momentum or position of a quantum state. For the purposes of communications, the term qubit has been coined to describe quantum states upon which information can be imposed. To make things even weirder, the qubits can be intertwined with one another (in physics-speak, “entangled”) so as to either convey information or act as a messaging agent. Taking things one step further, entanglement is best performed on photons (packets or quanta of light), and once entangled, their properties (such as spin state) are inherently shared regardless of their physical separation. This is the so-called “spooky action at a distance” that the famed physicist Albert Einstein bespoke. For those readers with a cybersecurity background, the advantages are immediate: a quantum networking system is demonstrably secure as any eavesdropping attempt will be immediately detected. It also means that with suitably low-cost entanglement technologies, the era of RF communications such as 5G, WiFi, and yes, even LiFi may come to a thudding halt as instantaneous communications is theoretically possible regardless of where one is provided the entanglement is not lost (or intercepted). This is precisely what several large nation states including ours are investigating, and they have demonstrated some amazing results thus far that dips into the realm of teleportation. But that is a topic for another article.