The world is still a long way from universal connectivity: More than 3 billion people don’t have access to the internet. In remote areas, and especially in rough terrain, one challenge is the cost of infrastructure—laying out a network of fiber-optic cables is difficult and expensive. X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, is testing a new approach in India and Africa using invisible beams of light to send data over long distances without cables.
Project Taara, previously called the FSOC (free space optical communications) Project, recently announced that it will work with partners in Kenya to begin rolling out the technology to bring fast, affordable internet access to some areas where other options won’t work.
The basic approach is similar to fiber networks, which also use light to carry data. But it works in the air instead of in a wire. Small boxes equipped with electrical, communication, and optical tech, placed high above the ground, send out infrared light in a beam roughly the diameter of a chopstick to another terminal as far as 12 miles away, creating a new zone of wireless connectivity in the area. The team has tested the technology in a series of pilots, including in a remote part of India.
The beam won’t work if it’s interrupted, which is why the terminals are placed high above people and trees; if a bird flies in front of the beam, the system detects it and resends the data. (The company says that the beam of light is safe for skin and eyes, and that it won’t harm wildlife).
The system has additional challenges. Smog, dust, rain, and other weather conditions can impact the signal since it’s not protected by a cable. But the team—which began working on the technology in 2013 after experimenting with ways to send data as part of Project Loon, another X project that wanted to bring internet access to the developing world using balloons—has spent years working on ways to make the connection strong enough to be reliable.
And while it probably doesn’t make sense to use the tech in areas where other options are possible, in some places it could begin to bring users online to access services like telemedicine, agricultural help for farmers, and online learning (along with cat videos and less-desirable aspects of connectivity, from misinformation to cyberbullying).