As per reports, tech giant Google talks with Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel to pilot high-speed internet and Telecom connectivity via light beams. It is a part of Google’s ‘Project Taara,’ which aims to offer internet connectivity via light beams. Google X, a company within Google known to work on so-called ‘moonshots,’ started the initiative. It is built on earlier efforts for internet connectivity solutions like Project Loon and others (1).
Project Taara has already been piloted in Andhra Pradesh in India and Kenya in Africa. It uses free-space optical communications such as light beams to provide internet connectivity to far-flung regions at a speed of 20 gigabytes per second. It is a significant increase from the 1 gigabyte per second that most customers have access to at present (2).
The project can bring connectivity to remote areas and resolve hurdles like optic fiber installation and other infrastructure, which has intrigued both Airtel and Reliance Jio to be a part of this project.
The technology sense light beams instead of radio waves between transmitters and receivers attached to service placed on buildings and structures.
According to a person aware of the development stated (3), it will be a game-changer since it can connect 12 remote regions with internet connectivity across buildings without cables and reduce towers’ burden.
“Taara links offer a cost-effective and quickly deployable way to bring high-speed connectivity to remote areas. Taara links help plug critical gaps to major access points, like cell towers and WiFi hotspots and have the potential to help thousands of people access the educational, business, and communication benefits of the web.”
– Google X.
Between 2015 to 2020, Google India had provided internet to more than 415 railway stations in India as part of its global ‘Station’ project to improve connectivity. However, it decided to kill India’s project only wearing 2020, citing an increase of 4G connectivity and cheaper data tariffs (4).
According to the tech giant, Indian now specifically has the cheapest mobile data per GB globally, with mobile data prices reduced by 95% in the last five years as per TRAI (5) in 2019.
After the Indian government service, the company also added that governments and local forms have kicked off their initiatives to offer easier, cost-effective access to the internet for everyone beyond railway stations.
Taara: Expanding Global Internet Access with Light Beams
Internet traffic worldwide is projected to grow 24% annually (6). Even though fiber optic cable can support this growth and demand, rolling out an extensive fiber network often means deployment complications. Moreover, planning and digging trenches to lay lines can be time-consuming and costly. It can also cause physical challenges that may make expansion nearly impossible (7).
Since there are difficulties in laying fiber in some places, there is a significant divide in mobile Internet speed between the countries with the fastest internet and the ones with the slowest.
While the company was working on its Project Loon (8), a potential solution to this problem arose. The Loon team was required to figure out a way to create a data link between balloons flying over 100 KM apart. The team investigated the use of wireless optical communication technology to establish high-throughput links between those balloons. Wireless optical communication is like fiber but without the cables. It uses light to transmit high-speed data between two points.
After the team experienced some early success in the stratosphere, the team began to wonder if it would be possible to apply some techniques to solve connectivity problems a little closer to Earth.
Taara aims to use light to transmit information at super high speeds via the air as a narrow invisible beam.
Tara team has piloted the technology in India and Africa. It offers a cost-effective and quickly deployable way to bring high-speed connectivity to remote areas. Tara lings would help to plot-critical gaps to measure access points like cell towers and WiFi hotspots and have the potential to help thousands of people across the scholarly, communication, business benefits of the web (9).
With a clear sightline, wireless optical communication technology can transmit data at high speeds of up to 20 GB per second. Interestingly, a single link covers distances of up to 20 kilometers and can extend fiber networks.
It means that the system is effective in areas that are difficult to connect using fiber cables. It includes sites located around forests, water bodies, railway tracks, and land with high real estate costs. Since the technology is based on open standards, it can work seamlessly with existing infrastructure and environment.
The Taara team focuses on delivering 20+ Gbps connectivity over distances of 20+ kilometers between each terminal and making the units fast and easy for partners to deploy.
At present, the team is in conversation with Telecos, ISPs, and governments worldwide about the potential for wireless optical communication technology to significantly accelerate the deployment of extensive high-throughput networks necessary to support the web future (10).
Roll out in Africa
Alphabet’s X ‘Moonshot Factory’ subsidiary offers a lot of cutting edge projects in development. So it is always thrilling when one of them gets ready for real-world deployment. Last month, it announced that its Project Taara, the high-speed optical wireless broadband endeavor, works with internet provider Econet to begin rolling out its tag across Sub-Saharan Africa.
It follows a series of small pilots in Kenya specifically. Taara and Econet are now ready to start adding high-speed wireless optical links to supplement and enhance its service reach more broadly, starting with Liquid Telecom (11) customers in Kenya.
It is another approach to extend the reach of broadband networks to parts of the Earth that have typically no access or high-speed connections, primarily due to infrastructure challenges. The fiber-optic network cable without the cables can connect thousands of customers or households while providing high-speed internet for streaming high-quality video.
The technology can essentially patch gaps in a traditional fiber-optic network spanning rivers and crossing terrain that would be hard or impossible to span using either above ground or underground cable. Since it requires an unbroken line of sight, access set them atop tall structures to ensure that it is achieved. It also means that they are best suited to plugging holes in traditional networks without building entirely new ones.
“The signal between Taara’s terminals mustn’t be interrupted, so Taara’s units are placed high up on towers, poles, or rooftops. Taara links offer a cost-effective and quickly deployable way to bring high-speed internet access to remote areas and help plug critical gaps to major access points, like cell towers and WiFi hotspots.” – Mahesh Krishnaswamy, General Manager for Project Taara (12).
X is piloting Taara in several deployments worldwide. It is a sign that it is maturing towards a commercialization stage that could see it in service as a supplement to existing networks in a lot more places relatively soon (13).
Loon Internet Balloon
Google’s Project Loon consists of high-altitude balloons, ‘Loons,’ that provide internet to remote areas. It is the third layer of connectivity ecosystem to assist places with minimum reach receive connectivity with the rest of the world. These balloons reach the stratosphere and provide internet connections to areas that were once considered unservable.
These internet-beaming balloons have recently set a new flight duration record. It made the longest balloon flight in the stratosphere for 312 days. It earlier clinched the record for the longest balloon fly in the stratosphere, which was about 223 days in 2018 – 2019.
In May 2019, its HBAL703 balloon took off from Puerto Rico, South America, and landed in Baja, Mexico, in March 2020, after taking one round of the planet Earth. It also flew across the Pacific Ocean in its journey.
These balloons are manufactured by Alphabet, the parent company of Google. They can reach up to 20 kilometers upon the Earth into the stratosphere. When inflated, these balloons are the size of a mini aircraft. They are made from sheets of polyethylene and are there the size of tennis courts. They are powered by solar panels and are controlled by software on the ground. These balloons beam internet down to the Earth and offer connectivity to the remotest of areas. It delivers 4G LTE and 5G connectivity to the same areas and can cover 200 times more areas than land cell towers.
Even today, many people worldwide still lack access to the internet or only have infrequent and intermittent access. Loon’s solution allows mobile network operators to cover this population and unlock new customers and business opportunities.
Kenya has already received the first commercial deployment of the Loon this year. It would initially provide a 4G LTE network connection spread across 31,000 square miles of Central and western Kenya, including Nairobi.
Now, the company plans to begin its journey with loons in the Amazon with Telefonica’s collaborative efforts. Previously these balloons have already been used in an emergency circumstance. They were used successfully in Porto Rico in 2017 after hurricane Maria destroyed all cell towers (14).
It uses software algorithms to determine where these balloons need to go and then more each into a wind blowing layer in the right direction. The team identifies the wind layer, speed, and direction using data from NOAA, National Oceanic, and Atmospheric Administration (15).
It partners with telecom firms to share the cellular spectrum so internet users can access the internet everywhere from their phones and other LTE-enabled gadgets. Balloons relay wireless traffic from phones and other devices back to the global internet via high-speed links operating in the ISM 5.8 GHz band.
Since it allows phone companies to extend the coverage is whenever needed, loans would be able to of a country’s with the cheaper option than laying cables or building cell towers. It could be effective in third world countries like Africa, where only 28% of the continents 1.3 billion people were registered to be using the internet in 2019 (16).
The internet providing loons were controlled and steward by AI and not humans. The navigation system leverages deep RL, Reinforcement Learning to navigate the stratospheric balloons.
RL is a type of machine learning technique that enables an agent to learn by trial and error in an interactive environment via feedback from its own actions and experiences.
The new technology is different from traditional automated systems with fixed procedures developed via engineers’ traditional methods. Instead of building a specific navigation machine, the team makes a machine that intern leverage is computational resources to build navigation machines. According to Loon, it is the world’s first deployment of reinforcement learning in a production aerospace system.
The team deployed the latest RL controlled named perciatelli 44 in the stratosphere over the Pacific ocean. The traditional navigation system had already performed well in that location.
The objective of the experiment was to remain within 50 kilometers of one define location. The closer Loon can remain to a set location, the more enduring service it can offer to the people in the area, and the results were excellent.
The RL system kept the balloons in a range of the desired location and consumed less power. Using less power to start the balloon leaves more power available to connect users to the internet, information, and other users (17).
Internet Connectivity in Rural India
Internet connectivity to rural India has always been an issue since it has vast geographical diversity. Reaching the rural areas of India via fiber optics would take enormous effort and time. Innovative ideas like Google’s Project Loon and Taara would solve this issue in India and globally.
According to the IAMAI (18) report released in November 2013, 68 million internet users are from rural areas. It also mentions that rural India shows a 58% year on year growth in internet usage. Over 70% of the active ruler internet users access the internet via mobile phones by 32% news internet only through mobile. The community service centers and cyber cafes are the moving points of access for 40% of them.
India was looking to solve this issue via are Bharat Broadband BSNL Landline, AirJaldi, and Satellite Internet.
In July 2014 Indian government allocated 500 Crore INR for its digital India campaign to set up broadband services in rural India. In 2013 previous to the national election, the government announced that it had cleared a proposal to provide three internet connections and one WiFi hotspot in each of the two 2.5 lakh Gram panchayat spread across the country Bharat broadband scheme.
The department of Telecom raised the idea to connect Gram panchayat with National optical fiber networks. However, the initiative did not meet deadlines, and only 40 development blocks covering 800 panchayats were laid with fiber optics.
BSNL was once the most preferred internet service provider in rural India; however, since Reliance jio, it has lost its touch in Indian telecom (19).
AirJaldi.net, a commercial Network operator, aims to provide last-mile connectivity in rural India attitudes and affordable cost. It uses a solar-powered wireless relay mounted on small pores to create a connection network with less downtime. It is available only in certain areas in rural India have a word it is looking to expand its reach further.
Satellite internet in India is termed as VSAT, Very Small Aperture Terminal. It includes wireless connectivity via satellite position in geosynchronous orbit. It offers connectivity without geographical location constraints and hence is an ideal option for rural areas in India. However, the services are not as beneficial to the common man as SMBs since they require indoor and outdoor units to be set up.
Balloon Internet Project in India
In early November, several reports surfaced that the tech giant Google worked with the government on a pilot project to provide internet connectivity using large balloons. According to an official source, Google approached the Indian government to set up the Loon project and Drone-based Internet transmission. The government has approved the testing of the Loon project only as of now. A committee under the chairmanship of Secretary, DEITY, has been formed to work on it.
Google may initially partner with BSNL for testing this technology by using a broadband spectrum in the 2.6 GHz band. Notably, the technology can replace mobile towers as it can directly transmit signals on 4G mobile phones.
According to sources, Google is likely to operate as a technology service provider and not as an internet service provider. It would use solar panels and wind to power electronic equipment in the balloon throughout the day.
“The DEITY committee is looking at various aspects to facilitate test like identifying locations, coordination with various agencies. Under the Drone project, Google had plans to transmit the internet on the ground using eight big solar-powered drones, but that has not been cleared by the government yet,”
– Sources (20).
What Would Project Taara Mean for India?
Internet connectivity has become essential for staying in touch with friends and families, education, business, and even health. That’s why so many companies and organizations working towards connecting the developing world to the internet have become vital.
Over 3 billion people globally do not have internet access. The terrain makes them hard to reach in remote areas, and laying out fiber optic cables is difficult and expensive. Alphabet’s new approach with Project Taara would bring the internet and all its benefits to those who need it.
Their new innovative approach is to send invisible light beams that can send data long distances without cables. It is similar to fiber networks that use light to carry data, but this works in the air instead of cables. Small boxes containing communication, electrical, and optical tech, placed on high towers since the beams must be uninterrupted, can send out the infrared light beams to another tower 12 miles, or 19.31 kilometers away.
Project Taara would bridge the internet gap between developed and developing countries. There are already more than 35,000 users of Loon who have used the service to search websites, use communication services such as WhatsApp, and stream videos (21).
Bridging the internet divide to areas that do not have it would help students who are learning remotely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, empower women to support their families, and make rural businesses open to world commerce. It is hard to imaging how much good pulses of light could do!