There are 4.7 billion internet users in the world, but the other 3.2 billion or so people are proving difficult to get online. Looking for ways to close the digital divide, Google’s sister company X is exploring a new way to provide fast and affordable internet to underserved communities seen as too difficult, too remote or too expensive to reach. Project Taara (formerly known as The FSOC Project) transmits high-speed data through invisible beams of light between terminals mounted on existing towers or rooftops. In November, X unveiled plans to roll out the service in Kenya in partnership with telecoms Econet Group and Liquid Telecom, equipping Econet’s towers with Taara terminals to create links throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Each link is projected to provide coverage of up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) at a bandwidth of up to 20 gigabits per second—enough connectivity for thousands to watch YouTube simultaneously, for example. Having access to that kind of service means more than watching videos on social channels, though: Meaningful internet connectivity builds opportunities and economic growth—and that link became all the more obvious during the pandemic when so many vulnerable populations were cut off from the rest of the world.
Taara promises to deliver high-speed connectivity in areas “where it’s challenging to lay fiber cables, or where deploying fiber may prove too costly or dangerous,” such as in war-torn regions, across national parks or over large bodies of water, Mahesh Krishnaswamy, Project Taara’s director and project lead, wrote in a blog post.
The technological inspiration came from another of X’s projects with a similar mission: the ill-fated Loon. Killed off in January, it aimed to provide access via a network of connected balloons in the stratosphere. “The road to commercial viability proved much longer and riskier than hoped,” X CEO Astro Teller wrote in a post, but added that “connectivity remains high on our list of spaces to keep hunting for moonshot ideas.”
And Loon did offer one big takeaway: After the X team used laser beams to create a data link between balloons more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) apart, it realized the potential to bring the same light technology down from the clouds.
But while the beams proved be effective at patching gaps in traditional networks, the team ran into deployment complications. Namely, fast and uninterrupted service requires data to travel via an unbroken line of sight. Mapping a path and digging trenches to lay cables would likely delay schedules and come with a high price tag—and even then, the terrain could also impose physical limitations with the potential to prevent future expansion. Instead, the team decided to run its network atop tall structures, giving it an unobstructed path of fiber cables and the flexibility to keep growing.
After running pilots in India and Mexico, the team is now implementing the system in Kenya, working with its local partners to deliver much-needed educational, business and communication benefits.
“Connectivity is more important than ever,” Krishnaswamy said. “The pandemic sparked a dramatic shift in how we work, learn, and stay in touch with family and friends, and underscored just how important fast and affordable internet is to our daily lives.”