Project Loon, a project researching the use of stratospheric helium balloons to transmit wireless internet, was shut down by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, in January (an attempt to use solar-powered drones folded in 2017). However, parts of the Loon project’s technology remained in development, particularly the Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) cables that were initially intended to connect the high-flying balloons — and now that technology is in use delivering a high-speed broadband link for individuals in Africa.
FSOC can generate a 20Gbps+ broadband link from two sites with a clear line of sight, similar to fibre optic lines without the cable, and Alphabet’s moonshot lab X has built up Project Taara to give it a shot. They began by establishing linkages in India and Kenya a few years ago, and today X announced what it has accomplished by using their wireless optical link to connect service over the Congo River from Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to Project Taara’s lead, Baris Erkmen, the link transferred approximately 700TB of data in 20 days, supplementing fibre links used by local telco Econet and its subsidiaries. The researchers chose this location not only because of the temperature, which they admit is better suited to wireless optical communications than a foggy city like San Francisco, but also because of the challenge posed by the deep and fast-flowing river. Although the cities are only a few miles apart as the crow flies, Taara claims that a fibre link to Kinshasa would have to travel roughly 250 miles (400 kilometres), making access to the internet five times more expensive.
Despite sending its messages without the protection of a physical fibre, Taara claims that its link had 99.9% availability during the test time. End customers have no idea whether their communications are using FSOC instead of fibre, according to the team, and it intends to give an indistinguishable experience. They also stated that there had been no weather-related issues in the Congo that had hampered the connectivity on this route thus far. The capacity to modify laser power on the go, as well as enhanced pointing and tracking, are credited with its resilience in the face of haze, light rain, birds, and other obstructions.
Project Taara links are naturally high up since they need to see each other, and as you can see in the GIF above, they can automatically adjust their mirrors to connect “a light beam the diameter of a chopstick accurately enough to hit a 5-centimeter target that is 10 kilometres away.” The device can adjust itself within a +/-5 degree cone, and if that fails for some reason, the team claims that they can try to remote direct them into a connection before dispatching technicians.