According to Boston University (BU), its College of Engineering is using a National Science Foundation grant to develop the next generation of wireless communications technology based on visible light instead of radio waves.

BU researchers expect to incorporate data communications capabilities into low-power light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to create smart lighting that would be both faster and more secure than current network technology.

“Imagine if your computer, iPhone, TV, radio, and thermostat could all communicate with you when you walked in a room just by flipping the wall light switch and without the usual cluster of wires,” said Thomas Little, BU engineering professor. “This could be done with a LED-based communications network that also provides light—all over existing power lines with low power consumption, high reliability and no electromagnetic interference.”

BU researchers will focus on developing the solid-state optical technology that will serve as the network’s backbone. Little said indoor optical wireless communications systems could use white LED lighting inside a room, similar to the TV remote control, to provide Internet connections to computers, personal digital assistants, TV and radio reception, telephone connections, and thermostat temperature control.

A wireless device within sight of an enabled LED could send and receive data through the air, initially at speeds around 1 to 10 megabits per second, with each LED serving as an access point to the network. The ability to rapidly turn LED lights on and off, faster than the human eye can detect, is key to the technology. Flickering light in patterns enables data transmission without any noticeable change in room lighting.