Alphabet, Google’s parent company has announced a roll-out plan for its new project that will enhance internet connectivity across the world, especially in underserved places like Africa. Project Taara will provide super-fast connectivity through the use of invisible light beams transmitted at high altitudes. Unlike other existing means of connectivity, the light beams will offer faster, more affordable and accessible internet to people across the world.
How do light beams work?
In a simplified explanation by RMIT University researcher, Haoran Ren, current broadband fibre-optics carry information on pulses of light, but the way the light is encoded at one end and processed at the other affects data speeds. The advanced nanophotonic devices being developed by researchers can read a special form of “twisted” light and forms the missing key to unlocking super-fast, ultra-broadband communications.
This advanced technological communication will harness the features of light beams to carry more data and process it faster. This means that with the light beams, internet speed could be as much as 100 times faster than we currently have it.
Has this been tested?
Earlier this year, Loon, a project under X (a company under Alphabet), has launched a new internet service for communities in Kenya, using floating balloons. Alastair Westgarth, the CEO of Loon, in a blog, said that the 4G LTE service will be provided to subscribers of Telkom Kenya for now, via a fleet of around 35 balloons, covering an area of about 50,000 square kilometres across western and central regions of the country, including its capital, Nairobi. The Loon balloons will work as mobile masts, travelling across different locations to enhance internet services for subscribers.
To enhance how the floating balloons worked, Alphabet had to device a means of connecting the balloons as they float, so that they continuously transmit without hindrance. According to X, which is responsible for the projects, the team investigated the use of wireless optical communication technology to establish high-throughput links between balloons. Like fibre, but without the cables, wireless optical communication uses light to transmit high-speed data between two points.
“After experiencing some early success in the stratosphere, the team began to wonder: would it be possible to apply some of that science to solve connectivity problems down a little closer to Earth?”
X noted on the Loon project page that Loon is delivering connectivity to communities that are underserved or where the communications infrastructure has been damaged or wiped out. In 2017, Loon partnered with Telefonica to provide basic internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people across Peru who were displaced due to extreme rains and flooding. The Loon team also worked closely with AT&T and T-Mobile to bring the internet to more than 200,00 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria made landfall. In 2020, Loon began delivering commercial service in Africa.
The balloons are working, the light beams have proven to be effective, and X is still trying out new ways to make internet access easier.
Infrastructural benefits of Taara
One of the primary challenges with internet access across Africa has been the cost of market entry. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country and largest economy, it is four times cheaper to transmit fibre Internet from Lagos to London than from Lagos to Abuja. The cost of transmission, therefore, affects the overall cost of production, which leads to expensive internet access. With about 41% of Africans living in extreme poverty, paying for internet access competes with paying for basic amenities like food.
However, according to X, with a clear line of sight, wireless optical communication technology can transmit data at high speeds of up to 20 Gbps. A single link can cover distances up to 20 km and be used to extend fibre networks. It will also provide long-range line-of-sight data transmissions at 20+ km with high-throughput supports 10-100s Gbps data rates.
This means that the light beams will also enhance and utilise existing fibre to work effectively. Alphabet notes that the system is useful in areas that are difficult to connect using fibre cables. These include sites located around forests, water bodies, railway tracks, or land with high real estate costs.
What this system needs is to be installed on existing towers or tall buildings, and they are ready to transmit. This will circumvent the challenges of expensive fibre connectivity. By eliminating the access prices, Project Taara is set to be very affordable as well as accessible. While the price is yet to be announced, the accompanying factors evidence low price.
The future of broadband in Africa
Africa is projected to host more than half of the world’s population growth by 2050, meaning that an overwhelming need for internet access will rise on the continent. Several companies have been trying to establish sustainable solutions to Africa’s connectivity challenge, with SpaceX wanting a slice of the market through its Starlink project.
X, specifically targeting Africa with its Loon and Taara projects, also shows a compelling interest for the company in Africa. These developments mean that African countries through partnerships and collaborations with the private sector will become one of the leading continents with internet users by 2050, creating a robust market for the future. With innovative means of combating Africa’s erratic internet access, this could also lead to a diversion from fibre-optics as new broadbands emerge.
After successfully testing out in India, Project Loon and Project Taara have kicked off in Kenya, as Starlink has started testing for effectivity. The future of broadband is exciting for the continent and the world.
The Authority on News, Data and Market Analysis for the African Space Industry.