Alphabet’s laser-powered broadband demonstrates 99.9% uptime within first 20 days

X, the Moonshot Factory trials ‘fibre without fibre’ across the Congo River with 700TB of data transmitted in its first few weeks

Alphabet subsidiary X, the Moonshot Factory claims its laser-based broadband service has supplied nearly 700TB of data within its first 20 days of operation, with 99.9% uptime.

Dubbed Project Taara, the network is powered by wireless optical communications (WOC) links which are based between Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo and Kinasha in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These sites are separated by 4.8km across the Congo River.

This laser-based network beams highly precise light signals between terminals and is based on learnings from a previous experiment in which X beamed lasers between stratospheric balloons.

The project aims to plug connectivity gaps and expand global access to fibre-like speeds in rural and poorer areas around the world, without the need for fibre cables.

Internet connectivity in Kinasha, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is currently five times more expensive than in Brazzaville, despite the relatively short distance between the two cities. This is largely because fibre cables need to be routed more than 400km around the river to reach Kinasha.

“Being able to deliver high-speed internet (up to 20 Gbps) most of the time is a vastly better option than having millions of people miss out on the benefits of connectivity,” said director of engineering for Taara, Baris Erkmen, “because the economics of laying hundreds of kilometers of cable in the ground simply don’t stack up.

“My team and I are delighted to be bringing these technical advances to the banks of the Congo River to help provide people in Brazzaville and Kinshasa with access to faster, more affordable connectivity.”

The technology works much in the same way traditional fibre cables use light to carry data beneath the ground, with Taara using narrow, invisible beams of light to transmit signals over vast distances.

To successfully establish a link, Taara terminals search for each other, detect the other’s beam of light, and lock in like a handshake to create a high bandwidth connection.

A demonstration of how WOC works in practice

These beams of light are roughly the width of a chopstick, according to X, and need to be accurate enough to hit a 5cm target that could be as far as 10km away.

This form of networking hasn’t traditionally been considered viable, because signal reliability is often compromised by adverse weather conditions such as fog or haze. Disruption might also be caused by birds flying in front of the signal.

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X has worked to address some of these concerns in developing Project Taara. For example, it’s refined atmospheric sensing, mirror controls and motion detection so terminals automatically adjust to maintain a precise connection. By automatically adjusting to things like the amount of laser power being transmitted, the reliability of links has also greatly improved.

Although its developers admit places “like foggy San Francisco” may never be ideal for WOC, there are many places around the world with ideal weather conditions for Taara links.

The future of the project will therefore be driven largely by those areas around the world that have favourable weather conditions for more than 99% annual availability.

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