Speed of light: How an Edinburgh tech pioneer's revolutionary rival to wi-fi is going global

Alistair Banham has been chief executive of PureLiFi since 2016. Picture: Malcolm CochraneAlistair Banham has been chief executive of PureLiFi since 2016. Picture: Malcolm Cochrane
Alistair Banham has been chief executive of PureLiFi since 2016. Picture: Malcolm Cochrane
“Our vision is to make Scotland the global centre of excellence for LiFi” – Alistair Banham

It’s a technology that millions of us use every day. Whether at home or out and about in a cafe, hotel bedroom, train or even in some cars, we take the ability to connect to the internet via wi-fi - the ubiquitous wireless network technology - pretty much for granted.

And, on the whole, it works. Click connect, maybe stick in a password and off you go - a world of endless scrolling and dancing cats wherever you may be. Yet, this wonder of the digital age also has its pitfalls - speed, bandwidth and range are the main stumbling blocks, while health concerns over growing levels of radio frequency (RF) smog and security worries are often cited.

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Step forward an Edinburgh-based technology pioneer that has spent the past decade or so developing and perfecting its light-based alternative to wi-fi, promising greater reliability, far higher levels of security and less interference than using radio waves.

The light-transmitting connectivity tech being developed by Edinburgh-based PureLiFi could be incorporated into mobile phones, tablets and other consumer devices. Picture: Malcolm CochraneThe light-transmitting connectivity tech being developed by Edinburgh-based PureLiFi could be incorporated into mobile phones, tablets and other consumer devices. Picture: Malcolm Cochrane
The light-transmitting connectivity tech being developed by Edinburgh-based PureLiFi could be incorporated into mobile phones, tablets and other consumer devices. Picture: Malcolm Cochrane

PureLiFi was founded by “father of LiFi” Professor Harald Haas, now chief scientific officer, and Dr Mostafa Afgani, the firm’s chief technology officer, in 2012 as a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh. Since then a timeline of innovation has included the development of prototype and commercial products, with the US defence sector buying into the firm’s secure technology. A fundraising move in July 2022 provided £10 million of firepower from the Scottish National Investment Bank, allowing the business to commence on its next phase of scaling up.

And, as chief executive Alistair Banham is keen to point out, much of that growth focus will be on the vast consumer market, with the ultimate aim of getting LiFi components and tiny antennas into billions of mobile phones, tablets, wearables and other connected devices.

“A lot of global customers in the consumer world now have our evaluation kit for potential use in some of their products,” says Banham, a semiconductor industry veteran, with more than 30 years’ experience, who took up the top post at PureLiFi in 2016.

“We have the ingredients now that we can share with the world - that’s pretty exciting for the company. The consumer market is the Holy Grail. Everybody wants to get into the consumer world but that always takes time. Within the next couple of years I would expect to see LiFi technology integrated into consumer devices.”

The firm sees a future where LiFi - using light-emitting diodes (LEDs), infrared and the higher reaches of the electromagnetic spectrum - can sit alongside and complement wireless technologies utilising lower-frequency radio waves, such as wi-fi, 4G, 5G and beyond. While the signals from those existing systems can, to some extent, penetrate walls, light cannot do so, which is touted as one of the major advantages for the nascent technology. That guarantee of security, of removing the risk of data leakage, has made the system attractive for military and industrial users.

Meanwhile, the company has been developing a “link” product that can get around a problem associated with many modern buildings that have silver in the glass and material in the walls that can help with heating and cooling but also prevent RF passing through.

The LINXC Bridge units can be attached to either side of a window and plugged in, while connection to the indoor network can be made via LiFi, wi-fi, wired ethernet or any combination. As Banham puts it: “You don’t need to drill a hole in the wall or put a cable through. It’s a simple self-installed solution.”

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Last year, the firm signed a deal that expanded its reach in the world’s most lucrative defence market. The three-year agreement saw Fairbanks Morse Defense (FMD) become the exclusive reseller of the Scots company’s technology and products to FM OnBoard maritime defence customers in the US. LiFi is said to offer “unparalleled security”, compared to conventional technologies such as cellular, wi-fi and Bluetooth, with its lack of a digital footprint giving it the edge.

“Military operating in tactical centres cannot be detected using the light spectrum,” notes Banham. “Multiple people using phones and conventional radio frequencies creates a digital heat print - ‘I can see you, therefore I can target you’. On top of that you have the opportunity to drive some really high data rates as well.

“RF can become very congested. Every device you have has to be channel managed within the RF spectrum and it consumes capacity. Then someone comes along and downloads or streams something with a large data demand and it sucks capacity from everything else. Latency gets worse and people have a very bad experience,” he adds.

While the business has strong support from its backers and is “still good for cash”, Banham is eyeing further investment as the company looks to take things to the next level. He reveals that he is “out on the road now looking for my next bit of investment” and is hopeful of closing a deal by the end of the year, or early next year.

“When you are developing innovative technology like this it doesn’t stop,” he stresses. “We always need to work on the next generation of parts. When you are dealing with large companies you need to be outside their door. We also want to further integrate our discrete solutions into integrated circuits and new devices, and we want to drive our photonics business.

“LiFi is now part of the most pervasive protocol on the planet and our vision is to make Scotland the global centre of excellence for LiFi. It’s all about building the business here, increasing employment and giving something back to our investors.”

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