In Barcelona, cutting-edge technologies struggle to demonstrate their potential

Virtual reality on show at Mobile World Congress 2017. [Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia, Inovações e Communicações / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report MWC17: The power behind the tech revolution.

As the Mobile World Congress continued, the “father” of Li-Fi said his LED-based wireless connection technology deserves EU support, while Blockchain developers defended the positive impact of the public ledger on society at large.

Companies brought specific applications to this year’s congress in Barcelona, aiming to demonstrate the potential of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things which all rely on 5G, the new generation of mobile broadband connections.

Few other technologies promise greater benefits.

Li-Fi, a technology pioneered by Harald Haas, a German engineer and a professor of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh, provides wireless Internet connection by using LED lights.

This type of connection, relying on infrared and near-ultraviolet lights instead of radio-frequency spectrum, can multiply the size of the pipe used to transfer data.

Blockchain, the technology behind virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, could herald the end of middlemen in any kind of transaction. Backers say it could mark the arrival of Internet 2.0, where value is shared, not just information.

But both technologies need to clear important hurdles before they can be rolled out on a bigger scale.

‘Massive penetration’ expected

Still, Haas believes Li-Fi can deliver the “revolution” it promises.

“I expect a massive penetration in five years’ time,” the German engineer told yesterday (27 February) at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Haas came up with the idea 15 years ago. At the time, telecom firms were developing 4G to enable the transition from mobile telephones to mobile media.

“At that stage the problem of finding radio spectrum was very clear,” he recalled.

This so-called “spectrum crunch” led Haas to look at LEDs as a potential resource. LED lights offer 1,000 times more capacity than the entire radio spectrum for data transfers but it was not clear if it could also provide high rates for data exchanges.

“Our breakthrough was to unlock the data rate,” Haas explained.

Member states support spectrum shake-up for mobile internet

The Council endorsed on Thursday (26 June) the European Commission’s proposal to liberate the 700 MHz frequency by 30 June 2020, in time for the irruption of the next generation of wireless broadband (5G).

Once that obstacle was overcome, the next stage was to turn every object in people’s homes into a connected device.

“Your toaster has a LED light to say if it is ‘on’ or ‘off’. Now we can use this status light to make predictable analysis. The toaster can order a new one itself from Amazon when it is about to break,” he said.

And “this is only the beginning” of what Haas calls with enthusiasm a “revolution”.

Li-Fi has already attracted attention from both the private and public sector. BT and Deutsche Telecom are testing the technology. His research is supported by Scotland, while the German government follows Haas’s progress with interest.

Lack of EU support

But EU authorities remain lukewarm.

For five years, he has tried to convince them about the benefits of Li-Fi. “My proposals have been regularly rejected,” he lamented.

“Sometimes it is hard to convince a community about a new radical technology if they have not seen it. That is understandable,” he said.

But it needs “much stronger backing by the European Commission”, he insisted.

Haas hoped that Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip would visit his booth at the Mobile World Congress to clear what he calls “misconceptions” about his technology, including alleged failure to function in sunlight.

He warned that Europe risks missing out on a “big opportunity” to take the lead in a new technology that has the potential to replace America’s Wi-Fi.

Moedas: Europe's industries have to go digital

Europe has a good industrial basis, with strong traditional sectors. But EU countries are “not making the merge with the digital world,” warns Carlos Moedas, saying the transition will be “the most crucial area for getting it right or wrong for Europe”.

What is it for?

Compared to Li-Fi, Blockchain is several steps ahead in its development.

It has already proved successful in applications such as Bitcoin, the virtual currency. A long list of companies, including some of the world’s largest banks, are already investing in financial applications based on the public ledger.

But supporters still struggle to demonstrate the benefits it can bring in various fields, from finance to identity recognition.

During a 75-minute panel discussion in Barcelona, developers fought hard to articulate the specific applications of Blockchain. Essentially, the technology has the potential to eliminate the third party in any kind of transaction, bringing down costs in all sectors of the economy, supporters claimed.

But critics believe Blockchain offers a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Developers have tended to apply the technology to existing businesses instead of creating new ones, bringing only limited gains, they claim.

Others say the relative slow take-up of Blockchain might prove to be an advantage in the long run. Julio Faura, head of R&D and Innovation at Spanish bank Santander, believes it is a “good thing” that Blockchain was evolving in incremental steps, saying anything that stores property requires solid ground.

Bitcoin expert: EU should 'wait and see' before regulating blockchain

Lawmakers are debating how to deal with virtual currencies and, in particular, with the promising technology behind them: blockchain. Patrick Murck, co-founder of Bitcoin Foundation, believes that the current ‘hands-off’ approach is the right one.

Entrepreneurs, for their part, defended the notion that Blockchain will enable a revolution from today’s Internet by allowing the transfer of not only information but also value. This was the view defended by Diego Gutiérrez, the president of Bitcoin Argentina and CEO of RSK Labs.

He mentioned potential applications beyond the financial sector such as reputation-based e-identities that nobody could alter.

In order to unleash the power of Blockchain, Ryan Shea, co-founder of Blocksatck Labs, argued that the public ledger must be genuinely open, and not controlled by a single party or federation of players.

Used as a public record, Blockchain could make lawyers and judges redundant, as no interpretation of the “public truth” would be needed anymore.

But even enthusiasts like Melanie Shapiro, the founder of Case, highlighted the limits of Blockchain. Interpretation issues would not disappear, she said. “We will continue to need lawyers,” he told the audience.

  • 27 February- 2 March: Mobile World Congress (Barcelona).

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