Alphabet, Bharti Airtel to bridge India's digital divide with frickin' laser beams

Dr Evil would be proud

Alphabet's plan to deliver high-speed internet service using helium-filled balloons may have been a bit too loony to work. Instead, the so-called Moonshot Factory has seemingly taken a page out of Dr Evil's playbook and started strapping lasers to buildings.

The endeavor is part of Alphabet's Project Taara – which has been under development since 2019. On Monday the many-headed web Hydra revealed its first major collaboration with Indian telecommunications service provider Bharti Airtel: to use lasers to bridge gaps in terrestrial network infrastructure.

Over the next few months, Airtel plans to deploy Taara's optical links in both rural and urban areas to extend internet access to under-served parts of the country.

The terminals themselves serve as large optical transceivers. They rely on the same principles that underpin fiber optical networking – but rather than costly glass cables that must be run point to point over land, information is beamed directly through the atmosphere to another terminal.

At one end, a Taara terminal is connected to a small remote network, and at the other another terminal connects back to the service provider's existing network infrastructure, and functions as an uplink.

The idea here is that this tech will allow Airtel to bridge physical, economic, and logistical gaps where deploying traditional fiber infrastructure is either difficult or cost prohibitive to deploy – like across rivers or rugged terrain. Airtel also plans to use the tech in dense urban environments.

We'll note that this kind of fixed point-to-point connectivity isn't anything new. Microwave and satellite communications have long been used to extend connectivity in areas where laying cable wasn't practical. Microwave transmitters are still commonly used to connect remote locations over line of sight. The tech is also used in urban environments for low-latency communications between nearby buildings – particularly in the financial sector.

The difference is that light is a much more efficient carrier of information than electromagnetic waves. "Radio spectrum cannot support the world's growing data demand," states the Project Taara website, which claims its tech can pipe 30x more data through its optical interconnect than is possible using radio spectrum. As for Taara's terminals, Alphabet says each is capable of speeds up to 20Gbit/sec. While it might not sound like all that much, it's actually on par with the kinds of passive optical networks commonly deployed by broadband service providers. XGS-PON, for instance, tops out at 10Gbit/sec, symmetrical.

Of course, this tech isn't without its challenges. One of the more obvious is the potential for signal loss due to environmental factors like weather, air quality, and other obstacles that get in the way of the frickin' lasers.

According to the Project Taara team, many of these challenges have been mitigated by modulating the laser power and adjusting how data is processed. "When Taara's beam has been affected by haze, light rain, or birds – or a curious monkey – we've not seen any service interruptions," the team claimed in an earlier blog post.

No word on whether the monkey can ever have children.

The group notes that certain locales – like the notoriously foggy San Francisco Bay area –  may never be ideal for this kind of technology. ®

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