Doug Bonderud

May 4th 2018

Is Transmitting Data Over Radio a Wi-Fi Alternative?


People have come to expect Wi-Fi as a given in the modern world. That’s because more than 7.4 billion users worldwide now enjoy mobile broadband service, according to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. It’s not as prevalent as you think, however; 4 billion people worldwide still don’t have reliable internet access, according to the World Economic Forum. Could the transmission of data over radio be the revolutionary Wi-Fi alternative the world needs?

Wi-Fi Worries

Running traditional copper cable or light-transmitting fiber isn’t cheap or a viable solution for developing countries and remote locations. Wi-Fi presents a seemingly ideal solution: Provided there’s power, a series of Wi-Fi routers and transmitters could deliver information on demand. As noted by Ars Technica, however, it’s not quite that simple.

Signal strength poses a big problem. The stronger the signal, the better the connection — unless obstacles are in the way or the power required to boost signal strength isn’t available. The efficacy of Wi-Fi drops dramatically when there’s too much interference or interference across the wrong frequency range. As a result, users struggle to find Wi-Fi “bars” and can’t maintain solid connections.

The Sound Solution

Transmitting data over the radio is emerging as a Wi-Fi alternative. But make no mistake: This isn’t a “new” technology. Network World points out that Rudolph Hell’s “Hellschrieber” machine — created almost 90 years ago — could send data-carrying audio tone pulses over any radio. While advancements like light-based “Li-Fi” have taken center stage in recent years, there’s now a push to revive the transmission of data over sound.

Using current audio-carrying networks, it’s possible to encode information, transmit via audio and have receiver devices decode the message, which could be anything from text, images or URLs. As Tech Crunch says, companies like Chirp, Lisnr and even Google are now testing out the benefits of transmitting data over sound waves. Lisnr found that using frequencies between 18.7 kHZ and 19.2 kHz for transmission made signals inaudible for 98 percent of people; the remaining two percent heard white noise.

Actionable Audio

Transmitting data over radio is gaining popularity among companies. Ticketmaster is working on audio-based digital tickets that will replace printed tickets. Google is following suit; they offer audio technology that allows users to pair their phones with their smart TVs, eliminating the need for Bluetooth, notes Wired.

Audio data transfers allow virtually anyone to quickly transmit payment information or to verify digital credentials. People may be skeptical of transferring their data over the radio, but — just like traditional Wi-Fi data — it’s possible to encrypt audio traffic to limit the chances of man-in-the-middle attack, also according to Wired. Sound-based data sharing is also useful in places where traditional radio technology and Wi-Fi aren’t permitted. As Energy Live News reports, EDF Energy is now testing data over audio to transmit data from remote instruments at Heysham 1, a nuclear power station where Wi-Fi, mobile and radio transmissions are restricted.

Hearing Is Believing?

So here’s the takeaway: Internet access still isn’t ubiquitous, and Wi-Fi doesn’t always solve the problem. While data over radio can’t compete with the throughput of typical wireless connections, it’s an ideal way to deliver data-on-demand to virtually any device and offers unique benefits for both near-field communication and radio-restricted applications.