Your Wi-Fi Could Eventually Arrive Over Light Beams

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Key Takeaways

  • An innovative way of delivering wireless internet in remote areas has been launched by Alphabet in Kenya.
  • Project Taara is being used in areas where it’s a challenge to lay fiber cables.
  • The system works by using light to transmit information at very high speeds as a very narrow, invisible beam.
Girl in school holding a tablet as the light shines through her classroom's windows
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

A new technology that delivers wireless internet over light beams is being rolled out in Kenya, and it could eventually be used to expand internet access to underserved areas of the U.S., experts say.

Project Taara, launched by Google’s parent company Alphabet, is being used in areas where it’s a challenge to lay fiber cables. The technology requires line of sight connections high up on towers. Alphabet is working with a telecom company to deliver internet access in remote parts of Africa.

"By creating a series of links from our partner's fiber-optic network over the ground to underserved areas, Taara's links can relay high-speed, high-quality internet to people without the time, cost, and hassle involved in digging trenches or stringing cables along poles," Mahesh Krishnaswamy, the general manager of Project Taara, said in an announcement on the company website. 

High Speed, Narrow Beam

The system works by using light to transmit information at very high speeds as a very narrow, invisible beam. 

"This beam is sent between two small Taara terminals to create a link," Krishnaswamy wrote. "A single Taara link can cover distances up to 20 km and can transmit bandwidth of up to 20 Gbps+—that’s enough connectivity for thousands of people to be watching YouTube at the same time."

Project Taara is working to expand the network across communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. The technology was piloted last year and is now up and running in Kenya. 

"We’re facing the same kind of problem in the US where remote areas have poor internet connections or none at all."

Similar technology could be available in the US within the next five years, experts say.

"The demand for data is driving a requirement for higher speed systems to support applications such as 5G infrastructure and last-mile connectivity that has not been satisfied by radio frequency (RF) or fiber optic cable," Barry Matsumori, CEO of BridgeComm, an optical wireless communications (OWC) company, said in an email interview. "We could expect to see deployments of broader OWC systems within the next few years given 5G expansion, as well as other connectivity applications, grow."

OWC is already used by the U.S. government for space communications and other specialized areas, Matsumori said. The "demand for higher data rates has exceeded what RF-based technologies can provide, and those rates can only be supported by either fiber optic cable or OWC," he added. "However, fiber optic cable is costlier than a wireless installation and, in some cases, regulations limit the extent of coverage."

From Africa to the US

Lack of access to broadband internet is a widespread problem that could be helped by optical systems like Taara, observers say. 

"We’re facing the same kind of problem in the U.S. where remote areas have poor internet connections or none at all," Sean Nguyen, director of Internet provider comparison site Internet Advisor, said in an email interview. "That means that the further away you get from cities, the more underserved those people are, which has a huge impact on education and work opportunities. The pandemic has shown us that this is one of the most important issues of our generation." 

A city covered in a web of transparent blue lights and lines representing connectivity
zf L / Getty Images

Despite the need for wider internet access, Nguyen said that bringing the Project Taara tech to this country could be challenging. 

"Unfortunately, it may be a long while before we see widespread use of the technology in the United States, and the reason for that is that we already have different existing infrastructures," he added. "There are a lot of Third World countries in the world that have better, faster, cheaper internet than we do, with newer technology, because their infrastructure was completely lacking. It was easy to bring in the latest technology and adopt it. In the U.S., that is going to be significantly more complicated."

Project Taara is an exciting glimpse of one way that internet access can be provided to remote areas. Now, let’s just hope that the U.S. can get a similar system so everyone can get online fast enough to work, study, and play.

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