Meet the technology powering the super-fast data of the future

Companies are showing off tomorrow’s tech today at the Mobile World Congress: 5G wireless and Li-Fi Internet

Nokia’s booth at the 2015 Mobile World Congress, touting 5G wireless technology

Nokia’s booth at the 2015 Mobile World Congress. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty)

The Mobile World Congress is underway in Barcelona, and there have already been a slew of product announcements from the world’s biggest phone makers. Samsung and LG, just to mention a few, are using the annual trade show—which sees about 100,000 attendees from around the world—to launch new flagship devices.

But it’s how these devices will connect in the future that’s the more interesting story at this year’s show. Rather than just a gadget event, MWC is proving to be the meeting point where new and better ways of connecting people and things are coming to fruition.

Top of mind this year is 5G, or fifth-generation wireless connectivity. It will ultimately mean faster cellphone connections, but 5G is much more than that.

Network equipment vendors are, in particular, talking up 5G’s “low latency” capabilities. In plain English, they’re looking at removing delays in wireless communications.

Until now, wireless data has very much been about speed, or how fast phone users can download or upload files, apps and so on. The industry hasn’t much cared as to whether people can do this in real-time with no delays.

But latency is becoming increasingly important, especially when smart cities and traffic enter the equation. If cars are going to “talk” to each other and traffic lights, there can’t be any delays. A communication that’s missed by a few milliseconds can have disastrous results.

The goal, then, is for 5G to have latency of less than one millisecond by 2020. (For comparison’s sake, Canada’s 4G networks currently average latency of around 60 milliseconds)

Nokia, for one, is showing off the low latency in a creative way at MWC. The company is inviting attendees to play catch while wearing 5G-connected virtual reality helmets. The idea is that if you can actually catch a ball while being virtually “blind,” then the latency behind the connection is basically zero.

5G is coming down the pipe quickly—no pun intended. South Korea plans to have a network up and running by the time it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics, while Japan wants it for the Summer Games in 2020.

Light-based internet

Another fascinating connection technology on display at MWC is Li-Fi, or wireless Internet connections that use light waves instead of radio waves to transmit data.

Harald Haas, a professor of mobile communications at the University of Edinburgh, is pioneering the idea, which uses a time-worn technique to deliver internet access via LED light bulbs.

The bulbs turn off and on rapidly—faster than the eye can see—to deliver internet connectivity of about 40 megabits per second. The effects are cumulative, so a group of lights can ultimately deliver much faster speeds than many existing internet connections.

Haas’s company, Pure LiFI, is showing off his LiFI X product at MWC. It consists of a USB dongle that connects to a smoke-alarm-like router, which collectively deliver about 400 megabits of internet access.

The humble light-bulb may thus go from being a single-purpose device to something that delivers many services and features – much like the smartphone.

“They provide illumination at the moment, but in two to three years a lightbulb in the ceiling will provide hundreds of different uses,” he said in a recent interview.

Last up, there’s Toronto-based KnowRoaming, which is launching its so-called soft SIM at MWC. Whereas the company’s previous product required phone users to attach a circuit-laden sticker to their existing SIM card, the new product is purely software-based.

It’s potentially big, since it will allow KnowRoaming subscribers to hop onto local wireless networks when they land in a different country with just a few taps on their phone. That way, they can pay KnowRoaming’s lower roaming charges instead of their home provider, which are usually much higher.

As company founder Gregory Gundelfinger puts it, “It’s a real game changer for us.”