Last Week in Tech Policy #56: LEDs Talk About Lights!

(By Sophia Galleher, Colorado Law 2L)

Some people enter Newark Airport and look up. The lights, like many LEDs, seem almost too crisp—too bright. But most travelers, perhaps worried about missing a connection or losing a wayward child in the terminal, rush through the airport without raising a brow; the LEDs lights, twinkling down from their chic, architectural fixtures, don’t really beg much thought. They seem innocuous enough.

But just know, the next time you walk through Newark Airport, that those lights are watching you.

How Did We Get Here?

Over the last seven years, light-emitting diode (LED) technology has developed at a dizzying pace:  performance and efficiency have skyrocketed while price points have plummeted. In 2010, a single, 9-watt LED light, designed to replace the conventional 60-watt incandescent (~ $1.60 per bulb), cost upwards of cost upwards of $40 per lamp. Today, a 9-watt LED product sells for a little less than $2. And a 60-watt incandescent light bulb lasts only about 2,000 hours. The LED equivalent? 50,000 hours and counting.

In just a few years, LEDs have upended an industry where the dominant technology—the incandescent light bulb—had seen only incremental upgrades for over 100 years.

In 2012, the tumbling prices coupled with guarantees of huge energy savings—the Department of Energy (DOE) touted LEDs as one of “today’s most energy-efficient and rapidly-developing lighting technologies“—spurred LED market penetration. Buzzwords such as “energy efficiency,” “clean tech,” and “energy savings” dominated the lighting business.

More recently though, the conversation around LED technology has shifted. The inclusion of semiconductors in LEDs makes them amenable to remote control. As a result, new buzzwords—“smart lights,” “connected lights,” “location analysis” and “networking technologies”—have started to infiltrate the industry lexicon.

Furthermore, LEDs have been thrust into the center of the Internet of Things (IoT). Some have opined that lighting is the infrastructural backbone of IoT. Others call LEDs the Trojan Horse: lights, so ubiquitous and so seemingly benign, will be equipped with interconnected sensors and controls that have near limitless applications. To name just a few:

  • Indoor location analytics, where retailers can use lights to send real-time ads to shoppers via phone.
  • Security applications, where lights can detect and record, via real-time video, when someone has entered a room.
  • Parking applications, where lights can send real-time parking availability information to drivers.
  • Smart grid, where streetlights can be controlled remotely or send notifications to a city’s transportation department.
  • LiFi and smart fabrics, where LiFi, a wireless technology that uses the visible light spectrum to transmit data, can send information to light-receiver fibers that are woven into your clothes.

LEDs are no longer just a source of energy-efficient lighting. They are sensor-laden, network enabled nodes that can harvest and transmit data. In other words, LEDs are smart.

Whose Light is it Anyway? LED Policy Dynamics
With new technology, the LED industry offers a set of dynamics that are particularly challenging to harness.

On one hand, clean-tech enthusiasts have championed LED technology. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and state and local utilities, have pushed for an aggressive adoption of the technology. And, although the legislation has recently recently received pushback, in 2007, a bipartisan Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which included a provision aimed at phasing out incandescent light bulbs.

At the same time, rapid changes in LED technology have ushered in a torrent of unanticipated issues ranging from electromagnetic compatibility issues to privacy concerns  and cybersecurity risks, that implicate other governmental agencies, advocacy groups, and business interests.

The LED industry offers a unique policy platform that hosts a confluence a disparate social, legal and economic interests, and how we ultimately decide to navigate these interests will have repercussions that reverberate well beyond the LED industry.

What’s Next? Questions to consider. 

  • How can policymakers design a framework that accommodates potentially conflicting values: promoting the rapid market adoption of a technology that offers significant energy savings versus reining in a technology that,  if underregulated, has to potential to become a soft target for hackers or, worse, compromise national security.
  • How can (or should) policymakers regulate the cross-sector business interests that are converging in the LED industry without stifling innovation?
  • What types of questions should policymakers proactively consider in order to maximize the energy-saving potential of LED while mitigating privacy and cybersecurity risks?