A COMMUNICATIONS revolution that could narrow the rural digital divide is coming to the Highlands.

An agreement has been reached to hold a field trial of Li-Fi – light fidelity – technology, which is the transmission of electronic data through LED lighting. The trial will be conducted in Caithness by Highland Council and the Li-Fi Research and Development Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

Li-Fi technology was first demonstrated by Professor Harald Haas, chair of mobile communications at Edinburgh University, during a live global presentation in 2011.

Now Haas has taken it a step further by using a laser station and solar panel receivers to bring the internet to areas, such as parts of the Highlands, where poor connectivity is a feature of everyday life.

Haas previously used a company called pureLiFi to market for indoor use the technology that connects people to the internet through light. It has customers in more than a dozen countries worldwide.

The professor has now spun out the Li-Fi Research and Development Centre to target its new applications using solar panels.

He told The National: “Over the past three years we have taken ordinary solar panels and added a little bit of technology to turn them into high-speed Li-Fi receivers.

“Solar panels are basically devices that collect photons and turn them into energy. The way information is encoded in Li-Fi changes the intensity of the light, which means the energy being harvested will vary over time, so fast that the human eye can’t see it.”

The National:

However, Haas, above, says the solar panels can follow these variations and deliver data with no change in quality. He said: “We thought that would be a wonderful application to tackle one of the main problems in the world – the rural, or digital divide – 60 per cent of the world’s population don’t have access to the internet.

“Also, we are now moving into the fourth industrial revolution where it’s all about data-centric economies. Future economies will thrive with access, so the gap between those who have access and those who don’t will increase and will increase unfairness in terms of opportunities to take part in that new industrial revolution.

“The Highlands still have this problem with high-speed delivery of data. While they have some minimum rates – and I’ve experienced it myself – the economy is suffering from not having better data rates.”

Haas said that with the solar panels they had combined two utilities – harnessing energy from the sun and receiving data from a laser station on a hilltop, tapping into “the backbone” of the internet.

“That’s the prototype, the proof of concept we want to show.”

The site chosen for the field trial is the headquarters of the family business Norscot Joinery, in the village of Bower, between Thurso and Wick.

Managing director Peter Body said: “We are currently very badly served by a mixture of fixed line and satellite broadband, with little prospect of ever getting superfast broadband.

“So, we are very keen to explore any option which offers us the potential for improved connectivity.

“We live and work in a digital world and our business is being disadvantaged by poor internet access.”

Highland councillor Karl Rosie said he had visited many businesses throughout the region and had always been struck by the disadvantage wrought by poor connectivity.

He said: “The situation restricts development and progress in a range of ways and the importance of providing first-class connectivity has to be our ambition and target to enable business across all sectors, communities and individuals to realise their full potential and be able to compete on a global basis.

“The very real opportunity that Li-Fi presents in terms of ensuring 100 per cent connectivity and the huge range of applications that Li-Fi provides – such as security, underwater applications, health and social care and vehicle safety – are very exciting.”